I’m kinda-sorta jumping ahead in history here, bypassing the exceptionally intriguing confections of Ancient India and their influence on India’s food culture of today. Instead, I jumped directly into the path that is know of as “Halvah” (or halwah, or halva, or halava, or a plethora of other naming options that all relate to the same basic sort of confection).
Before chocolate candy took the Western world by storm in the late 1800′s, it is quite likely that the most popular confection on the planet was Halvah. For one, it has been around for ages, with recipes being documented in the 7th century AD, and the ingredients, technology, and processes to make halvah having been known for at least a millennium prior to that.
Okay, before getting too much further, what is Halvah? At its core, Halvah is either a grain-based or nut/seed-based mixed with a sweetener, and a binding agent if needed, and then other ingredients added as taste, resources, and regional tradition dictate. With all of the ingredient options available to a halvah fan, there is a large range of varieties out there. This range includes two different types of textures, as the use of flour with oil will result in a gelatinous halvah, while using a oily nut or seed paste will result in a, well, pastey type of confection. The latter version is far more popular in the world, with variations existing from Greece all the way to India and everywhere in between. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the semolina version is popular mostly in the area between Iran and India.
It’s difficult to discern where Halvah was created, as many countries, from the Balkans to India, claim that they were the ones who came up with the idea of mixing nut-paste with honey and possible egg whites. What we can point out is that “Halwah” likely comes from the comes from “hulw,” the Arabic word for “sweet. But that only shows the origin of the word, not the origin of the sweet.
Picture above is a nut-based type of Halwah, mixed with pistachio, a bit of tahini, a little sugar syrup, and just the hint of rosewater. But how to describe the texture to someone from the West? It is oily and pastey, and a little gritty. But all of these are typically negative terms, and I don’t wish to give a negative impression of the sweet, as it is quite good. I suppose I could use the word “unique” here, but again, that’s a description based on culture, as the confection is regularly consumed by at least 2/5ths of the world.
The one phrase which did kick in was “subtle”, a word not often associated with candies. While the textures were providing an interesting experience for my palate, the flavors were providing nuance. There was no one overpowering flavor here, each aspect of the candy providing a hint of its existence, but never coming right out and proclaiming itself.
But the difficulties in describing halwah doesn’t end there. Due to the sheer number of varieties out there, I can’t even promise you that every piece of will come across like the one mentioned above.
I suppose the best advice I could give to those intrigued by the prospect of this treat is to simply go out and look for it. The best places to find it would be bakeries and restaurants that cater to the Middle Eastern and Southern Asian crowd. Try it more than once, as there’s bound to be a variety out there that speaks to you.