It used to come in small silver cylindrical boxes of cardboard, wrapped very snugly
in foil. It was the most exotic thing I had ever tasted – it must have come from David Jones Food Hall – and it was a Special Treat. Halva was also my mother’s favourite sweet – indeed we children were ever only permitted a thin slice of it. That crumbly nuttiness, dissolving to mere honey sensation on our tongues, its delicacy and the way it shattered so easily into slivery shards: all this evoked cultures and countries beyond our imaginings.
This, I was to discover much later on, was only one type of halva among a myriad belonging to as many parts of the world. Albania and Argentina, Bangladesh and Croatia, Iran and Macedonia, Myanmar and Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey are but a handful who all boast their own particular version. The word itself is Arabic for ‘sweet’ – and the type I experienced is one of two main ones. The other is a flour- and generally semolina-based sweet more like a syrup-infused cake. It tends to contain honey and ground nuts and vast quantities of butter, whereas the former is made by grinding oily seeds such as sesame into a paste then combining it with sweeteners and flavourings like pistachio nuts or vanilla or chocolate or rosewater. I was always struck by how oily my plump childish fingers were after eating halva: it seemed to be bound up in the mysterious exoticism of it, because it certainly never tasted unctuous.
In India there is a carrot halva which is a delicate pudding. Gajar Ka Halwa is apparently best, and most authentic, when made with carrots which are red, so it also looks quite beautiful. The grated carrots are simmered, generally, in coconut milk or cream or even, as more modern recipes have it, condensed milk; pistachios, raisins, rosewater, cardamon, almonds and ghee may be stirred gently through before serving, preferably in a dish and prettily garnished with saffron and slivered dried fruits.
Years ago Nadine Abensur told me about the ice-cream she had serendipitously invented out of Greek yoghurt, cream and halva, the sesame-seed one. Ludicrously easy to make, it resulted, when I whipped up a cautious batch, in the most heavenly confection. She calls it Frozen Pistachio Halva in her vegetarian book Enjoy, should anyone seek the wonderful recipe. It entailed, however, tracking down halva and eventually I managed to do so from a little shop selling Middle-Eastern groceries in Mullumbimby. Rather than the cardboard boxes I remembered from my youth, it came in easy- to-open tins, easier still to plunge a teaspoon into and scoop out and into a mouth which seemed to have forgotten its original intent. It came as no surprise, then, to learn that there is a popular phrase in Bosnia, ide/prodaje se kao hawa, which loosely translated as ‘it sells like halva – or hotcakes!’