We mistakenly thought everyone knew about halva, the sesame-based treat found in nearly every deli and Middle Eastern market. But when one of our friends spotted this plastic container in our pantry and exclaimed, "What the heck is that?" we suspected perhaps an "I'm Eating What?!" column was in order.
Halva, halvah, helva, halawa, halava, helava or halwa -- however the hell you wish to spell it -- is nothing to be afraid of. Sure, it is dense, flaky, and chock-full-o'-sugar, but the only reason you should avoid this stuff would be if you suffer from some kind of sesame allergy that makes your face swell up like a pufferfish or something. Otherwise, this confection is yuhhhh-meee.
If you grew up in a Jewish home, chances are you saw bars of Joyva brand halvah, sold in bars usually near the cash register at your favorite deli. Your parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents probably chowed on it, too, since it has been stocked on shelves for nearly a century.
Joyva's website claims the recipe came from a Russian guy named Nathan Radutzky, a 22-year old from Kiev who reinterpreted an ancient Turkish confection dating back 3,000 years. (The site also claims the recipe was eaten by royals and was thought to promote fertility and sexual response. We haven't experienced any of the aforementioned, but we'll get back to you if such magical things occur.) It also claims "halvah" translates to mean "sweet meat" in Turkish but we're sure that is pure coincidence.
The contents of the tub we found in a Middle Eastern market for $5.99 (Al Kanater is the Lebanese manufacturer's name) comprised only ground sesame seeds, sugar, citric extract, natural flavors, and chocolate, but many varieties are available, including a sugar-free take. Joyva bars usually cost about a buck. They come in plain (vanilla), chocolate, or marble with or without mixed nuts, plain covered in chocolate with or without almonds, and plain with pistachios. Halvah.biz even sells "nut buckets," which we believe should be considered if for no other reason than the simple entertainment factor.
We recall seeing a fresh-made version of halva at Pompardale, but you had better call first to check.
Regardless of what form you find it in, halva smells like sesame, but only ever so slightly. Its texture can vary from near flaky to totally chewy, depending on whether it is fresh and how it is packaged. Another taste tester called Al Kanater's "kinda like mushed up marshmallows and powdered hot chocolate," but we found it more on the sesame side. Not sure how to indulge? Our favorite pastime is to sit a large hunk of it on our tongues and let our saliva melt it into oblivion, but Al Kanater's site suggested folks could also spread some on a warm baguette or add it in with banana or strawberry slices.
Speaking to whom should eat this, we say everyone who isn't concerned about cavities or losing a filling. And, of course, all you folks who need more "responsiveness" in the boudoir. 'Nuff said.