Whenever I used to think of halvah, I envisioned blocks of vanilla, chocolate or marble sesame paste-laden desserts sold by the pound in the deli cases of the Jewish grocery stores in Chicago’s Roger Park neighborhood. Whenever we went to one, my mom would ask for a slice of the dense, chalky treat, which we’d savor together at home after dinner.
No matter how big of a slice we got at the deli, wrapped up in waxed paper, it was never enough. Before we knew it, the halvah would be gone, zealously eaten by a family of five.
But, it's been years since I enjoyed halvah. Despite frequenting Jewish grocery stores on numerous occasions with my own family of four, we’ve never asked for a slice at the deli case.
I had somehow forgotten the sesame paste treat I enjoyed as a child. I had somehow forgotten how much I looked forward to sharing a slice at home. I had somehow forgotten how much it was a part of my heritage.
So, it was an unexpected surprise to be recently reunited with halvah. In Amsterdam of all places.
A lone Halvah shop among Dutch cheese stores
Amsterdam was the first stop on my family’s European holiday last summer. On our first day in the Dutch city, we walked through the heart of the city, seeking out a place for dinner. Our journey was a slow one as we looked in the store windows, tempted by the Dutch cheese, Delft Blue pottery and other goods elegantly displayed in each one. And, then a young man, standing in front of Sumsum & Co. Amsterdam, offered us a taste of halvah.
“Halvah?,” I asked the young man, thinking I must have misunderstood him.
“Yes,” he patiently replied. “Are you familiar with it? Have you ever tried halvah.”
It was my turn to reply with a resounding “yes.” And, with that, the young man beckoned us inside a small shop to sample the many blocks of halvah on display.
There wasn’t a deli case in sight. There wasn’t just vanilla, chocolate or marble to choose from. Instead, block after block of different halvah favors were lined on two rows of shelves, each one looking – and sounding – better than the next one.
Seeing the excitement in my eyes, the young man offered our family taste after taste of halvah.
Salted caramel halvah.
Green tea halvah.
Kinder chocolate halvah.
We tried them all. And, with each taste, my sons were won over to halvah. Just like I was as a kid – and again as an adult.
It’s why my family continued on our journey to find a place for dinner – with a large bag ladened with various flavors. And, it’s why we all walked a little faster, trying to get to dinner so we could then move on to dessert.
So what exactly is halvah?
The young man who sold us halvah in Amsterdam was a good salesman. He told us about how halvah is made. He told us about the health benefit of the ingredients. He told us things he didn't really need to – as we were sold on the taste and flavor variety alone.
But, I was glad to learn a few things about halvah – things I hadn’t worried about or paid attention to as a kid.
Halvah, pronounced hal-vah, is often spelled “halva,” "helwa" or “halava” – to just name a few. It means “sweet meat” in Turkish and the origins of the name can be traced back to the Arabic word for “sweet.”
Today, halvah is popular in countries across the globe.
Sesame halvah, the kind I enjoyed as a child, is popular in the Balkans, Poland, Middle East and other areas near the Mediterranean Sea. Its main ingredient, sesame paste (or tahini) is often mixed with sugar and honey, and may contain wheat flour or semolina. Other flavors like chocolate or vanilla can be added to make different varieties.
In countries like Israel, it’s eaten for breakfast – and dessert.
Enjoying halvah back on my home turf
Since being back in Chicago, I’ve purchased halvah twice. Once in small individually wrapped pieces from a Polish grocery story in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. And, a second time, in two larger rectangular pieces from an international grocery store chain with locations across my hometown.
I served the two rectangular pieces at a Rosh Hashanah dinner just a few nights ago. As I slowly cut the chalky, dense block into small pieces for a dessert-laden tray, I wondered if anyone would eat the halvah. Besides me and my sons, of course.
As the dessert tray was passed around, each person grabbed for a piece of halvah, remarking that they hadn't eaten it in years. And, then each person grabbed for another piece, and then another one until it was gone.
The cake remained. The brownies remained. The cookies remained. But, the halvah was gone. In its place were smiles of satisfaction. Smiles of remembrance. Smiles of appreciation. All for this sesame-based dessert.
So, now I’m happy to continue to enjoy my reunion with halvah – and take joy in spurrig similar dessert reunions for my family and friends. The only thing that could be better would be news that a halvah store is opening in Chicago.
Have you tried halvah? If so, do you enjoy it? When was the last time you enjoyed it? What is your favorite flavor? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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