What is Helva
Halva, the rich, crumbly dessert well-loved across many cultures, is so densely filling it almost manages to feel like a meal – and not an entirely unhealthy one at that. There are more than one hundred types of halva, which is generally ground and sweetened nuts and/or seeds.
Its role as a staple dessert extends across so many centuries and cultures that it can hardly be said to belong to any one nationality. Enjoyed and widely available in shops and bazaars across the former Soviet Union, however, it is there most associated with Central Asia, the entry point from which halva made its way to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Central Asia is historically and geographically closer to Turkish, Arabic, and Indian halva-eating cultures.
Halva gets its name from the Arabic word “halwa,” meaning sweets or desserts. The origins of halva are disputed, although many Russian-language sources claim that it originated in Iran as many as 2500 years ago.
In the 7th century, it seems the word referred to a paste of dates and milk in Arabia, and by the 9th century it indicated a paste made of flour and sugar. Now, halva can refer to two categories of sweets. One is a gelatinous mix of fried flour and sugar, popular in Greece, India and the Middle East. The other, the one most popular in the former USSR, is made of nut or seed butter and sugar, and is popular in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and parts of the Middle East and India. In some countries, halva is also made from fruits or carrots.
In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, halva is called “лавз.” There, it comes in two versions. The soft version is made from sugar syrup, egg white, and sesame seeds. The solid version is made by adding sesame seeds to pulled sugar. Pulled sugar is produced by boiling sugar and water, and then churning the cooked sugar until it turns into a white, thick, flexible substance.
In the post-Soviet world, halva almost exclusively refers to a seed- or nut-based version of the dessert. Sesame is a common base, as are sunflower seeds. Sunflower halva is a particularly Eastern European variety, since sunflower seeds are widely grown and consumed in Eastern Europe. Nut halva is also common and can be made from walnuts, peanuts, or pistachios, to name a few varieties.
Marketplaces and bazaars across the former USSR will often have sellers offering large blocks of halva of varying colors, spotted with nuts or raisins, which can be bought by weight. Halva is also mass-produced by most major confectioners operating in the former USSR and sold in stores and shops as smaller chocolate-covered bars or as pre-packaged blocks.
It is also used as an ingredient in candies and cakes. Moscow confectionery company Рот Фронт (“Red Front,” from German) makes halva candies – small cubes of halva coated in chocolate, and wrapped in shiny red-and-gold foil – that are particularly popular. Wafer cookies, or “вафли,” with layers of halva are another well-known treat. Russian recipes for home-made halva cakes vary, but many involve layers of cream made from combined halva and condensed milk (сгущёнка).
Nut or seed halva, when mass-produced, consists of three primary ingredients: ground nuts or seeds; sugar, honey, or molasses; and a foaming agent such as licorice root, soapwort, or marshmallow root. The foaming agent helps create the fibrous, layered consistency so specific to halva. Other flavoring ingredients, such as chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla, or dried fruits may also be added.
In Russia, halva is more often bought than prepared at home. In other countries, however, making halva by hand is a long-standing tradition. In Uzbekistan, the term “кандалатчи” refers specifically to someone who knows the secret of preparing halva, for instance.
Making halva in a modern kitchen is in fact relatively simple. Honey is used more often in “домашняя халва” (home-made халва) than in mass-produced versions. Some recipes for “тахинная халва” (tahini halva) are as simple as combining tahini (sesame paste) and honey. Others include egg whites, and still others call for flour, butter, and/or milk.