With its soft texture and sweet taste helva, also known as halva, has become ingrained into Turkish culture, as well as the cultures of the Middle East, for centuries. It is unthinkable, for example, to have a funeral without helva being served, or, on under less grim circumstances, as a quick dessert to whip up when a guest drops by unannounced.
What is Halva (Halwa-Helva)?
There are many variations of helva, but the one we are focusing on here is that made of flour or semolina. First, melted butter is added to flour or semolina and then cooked until brown. Once a golden brown color is achieved, the mix is doused in syrup and is served either warm or cold.
Helva can refer to many versions of this confection. The word itself means sweet, which has led to a great deal of confusion when examining historical texts. There is one kind that is described as sticky yet soft enough to grab by hand. For many of the recipes listed in the “helvahane,” or the dessert kitchen of the Topkapı Palace of the Ottoman Empire, ingredients were recorded but the method of preparation wasn’t; the directions were likely obvious to the cooks at that time. Some of these recipes can be dated back to as early as 1471. (1)
One of the first mentions of helva in the form we are common with came from the Sufi mystic and philosopher Mevlana Celaleddin-I Rumi, who wrote about it in his text of helva ceremonies in the 13th century. (2)
Several recipes from around the same time can be found in the Arabic cookbook called “Kitab al-Tabikh,” meaning The Book of Dishes. (3)
While helva has been listed in the recipe books of palaces throughout the centuries, it was not considered to be a very refined dessert; in fact, the Kitab al-Tabikh suggested it can be made with different kinds of sweeteners. Concentrated syrup made of sugar and water was often used as the primary sweetener, but date molasses, honey and others are also listed as alternatives. (4)
The earliest predecessor of helva has been described as a kind of nougat in a 10th century Arabic cookbook. The recipe calls for syrup to be prepared with boiled honey and egg whites, which is then mixed with a variety of nuts. A similar version that calls for flour is the most ancient variety and is known as “afrushe” in Persian and “habis” in Arabic. (1)
The Greeks, who were introduced to helva by the Turks, prefer to use semolina in their version of the dish, calling it “halvas simigdalenios,” literally meaning semolina helva.
The word helva stems from the Arabic word “halwa,” meaning sweet. Yiddish speakers pronounced the same word as “halva,” and a similar variant entered the English language around 1840.
Helva - more than just a sweet treat
- 125 gr butter
- 80 gr flour
- 120 gr sugar
- 400 ml water
- Melt the butter in a pot and add the flour. Cook the flour mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until the color of the flour starts to darken. Reduce the heat and continue stirring until you get a golden-brown color.
- In a separate bowl, mix the sugar and warm water. Turn off the heat on the flour mixture and carefully add the sugar water, stirring constantly. Be careful not to burn yourself at this stage as steam may be released. The result will be a soft and slightly wet helva.
- Use two spoons to scoop out oval-shaped helva pieces and serve warm.
NoteHalva is often decorated with crushed or whole nuts, which can add a new texture. Some different recipes even suggest a chocolate version of this dessert, a very new take on the dish. These are all worth trying if you enjoy the original.
The semolina version is often made with pine nuts, which are added to the melted butter with the semolina, providing a roasted aroma.
Bibliography(1) Priscilla Mary Işın, “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts”, 2013
(2) Marianna Yerasimos, “500 Yıllık Osmanlı Mutfağı”, 2002
(3) Gil Marks, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”, 2010
(4) Lilia Zaouali, “Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World”, 2007
- 1 tbsp butter
- 160 gr semolina
- 200 ml water
- 100 gr sugar
- Mix sugar and warm water, and set aside. Melt the butter in a pot and add the semolina. Cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly. Once the color starts to darken, turn off the heat. Pour the sugary water into the semolina butter mixture and give it a quick mix. Close the pot with a lid and let the semolina soak in the syrup for a few minutes. Once the water has been absorbed, you should have soft and slightly wet helva.