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A Halvah Note

August 08, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

Americans are moderately familiar with halvah, a crumbly sweet made from crushed sesame seeds that's usually sold in the same supermarket cold case as cheeses and fresh pickles. In origin, it's a byproduct of the extraction of sesame oil. The sesame solids are essentially tahineh with the oil removed.

This sort of halvah, properly called susam helva, is a Turkish sweet that drifted into this country around the turn of the century with immigrants from countries that had been part of the Ottoman Empire. But in the Middle East, it's only one member of a huge family of sweets called halwas, short for the Arabic hala^wa, "something sweet."

In the Middle Ages, there were candy-like hala^was and pastry-like hala^was. Even today, the Syrians make hala^wat jibn, a sort of sweetened dough flavored with cheese (or, if you prefer, a sweetened cheese stiffened with flour), which can be stuffed with nuts or cream or even eaten by itself.

The most common sort of halwa, though, particularly in India, Iran and Central Asia, is a paste of flour, water, sugar and butter cooked together until solid and usually given a flavoring. There are rose-water halwas and nut halwas but surprisingly few made with fruits, apart from dates. Carrots, however, are possibly the most common halwa flavoring of all. Carrot halwas have been made for at least 1,000 years.

In Kazakhstan, though, added flavoring is considered unnecessary when mutton fat has been used instead of butter. (It's an acquired taste.)

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