Open Sesame: The History of Halvah

By | Aug 08, 2013

by Nevin Martell

The first time I tasted halvah was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after a long night on the town. I wandered into a corner deli offering hundreds of potential dessert options, but I was drawn to a marbled halvah bar for sale at the counter. The turbaned, mustachioed sultan on the package beckoned me toward one last magic carpet ride for the evening. I couldn’t resist.

The first bite was an intoxicating mix of sesame, vanilla and chocolate with an initially crumbly texture that smoothed into a slight chalkiness that wasn’t unappealing. In contrast to the Snickers and Butterfingers I could have been eating, it wasn’t too sugary. I finished the bar before I made it outside and have been a fan ever since.

Derived from the Arabic word halwa, which means sweet confection, halvah’s centuries-old origins are widely debated; nearly every Middle Eastern culture claims it as its own. Some scholars have suggested it originated near Byzantium, now Istanbul, some time before the 12th century, while others believe it dates back all the way to 3000 B.C.E. Evidence exists that it was originally a somewhat gelatinous, grain-based dessert made with oil, flour and sugar.

The first known, written halvah recipe appeared in the early 13th century Arabic Kitab al-Tabikh [The Book of Dishes], and included seven variations. A cookbook from Moorish Spain in the same era tells of rolling out a sheet of candy (made of boiled sugar, honey, sesame oil and flour), sprinkling it with rosewater, sugar and ground pistachios, and covering it with a second layer of candy before cutting it into triangles.

Ultimately, halvah spread across the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Central Asia and the subcontinent. In each new locale, its name and ingredients changed slightly. Egyptians called it halawa and mixed in pistachios, almonds or pine nuts, while Indians shortened the name to halva and flavored it with regional products such as ghee, coconuts and dates.

One of the sweet’s most prominent enthusiasts was Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Ottoman Empire’s longest- reigning sultan, who had a special kitchen built next to his palace that was dubbed the helvahane [house of halva], where some 30 varieties of the confection were produced. One, made with sesame tahini, was adopted by Ottoman-ruled Romanians who passed it on to Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. It was this version that made the transatlantic journey to America in the early 20th century.

Stateside, the ancient candy’s biggest promoter was Nathan Radutzky, a young Jew from Kiev, Ukraine. In 1907, the budding entrepreneur produced his first batch of halvah in his garage on the Lower East Side, which he then sold from his back door and pushcarts around the city. When business took off, he opened a small factory in Brooklyn. In 1940, he moved his company—then called Independent Halvah & Candies—to a larger building in the borough, from which it still operates today. “The Eastern Europeans who were buying halvah when we started were looking for hearty, long-lasting foods,” explains Richard Radutzky, a third-generation family member in the halvah business. His grandfather’s take on the Old World classic was a hit in the New World. “Halvah became much more popular in America than it ever was in Europe,” says John Mariani, author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink. 

In the 1950s, Rudutzky changed his company’s name to Joyva and adopted the smiling sultan as its logo, playing up halvah’s exotic image. At the same time, Joyva began enrobing some of its halvah bars in chocolate. “We love to chocolate coat things,” says Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. “That’s a U.S. obsession.” In another decidedly American twist, Joyva also began to sell a king-sized bar. “We always maximize foods,” adds Marks. “Look at the cinnamon bun and the bagel; both are much larger than they’ve ever been in history.”

Joyva remains the leading manu-facturer of halvah in the United States (in 2009 the New York Food Museum ran an exhibit entitled “100 Years of Joyva”), with more than $5 million in annual sales. It’s also exported: In an interesting reverse migration, American halvah has become a hot item back in Europe. “Now you can find U.S.-style halvah throughout markets in the Middle East and beyond,” says Mariani. Halvah is made by both mom-and-pop operations and by large-scale manufacturers, such as Haitoglou Bros., Achva and Camel. It is especially popular in Israel, where it may be consumed as a dessert, an energizing breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack. Vendors in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market sell dozens of flavors, from carrot to vanilla, cut from large blocks and sold by the pound.

“People either love it or hate it,” admits Radutzky; in the United States, it is still most likely to be found in specialty stores such as Jewish, Persian and Greek markets. Halvah can also be found in health food stores: Although its high levels of fat and carbohydrates prevent halvah from being considered “healthy,” its sesame seed base endows it with nutritious minerals, including copper, manganese, tryptophan, calcium and magnesium.

Halvah continues to win over new fans and cross boundaries. Korean American celebrity chef David Chang, for example, has come up with a new method of halvah consumption: His customers can now order crumbled peanut butter halvah as a soft-serve topping at his wildly popular Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. What more could one ask for after a meal—or a night on the town?

Recipe: Halvah Filo Cheesecake

14 thoughts on “Open Sesame: The History of Halvah

  1. Paul Reber says:

    I heard somewhere that Halva is the first know. Candy. If a recipe was discovered 3000. BC THAT COULD BE TRUE.

  2. sankar says:

    there is also a irutu kadai halva shop in tamilnadu in india .. city named tirunelveli….. if u eat halwa there u will never go to ur country…..!!!

  3. There is a recipe in this morning’s NYTimes (10/7/15) for homemade halvah! Of course it doesn’t have chocolate or nuts, but I think I can figure out that part. It’s on my “to do” list! Look for it on the NY Times cooking site on line if you don’t get the actual paper.

  4. Ladya says:

    I knew about halvah from my classmate’s presentation. Her name is Nana Kawakami, she is from Japan. On her presentation, she brought us pieces of ‘halvah’ made from sesame by Seed+Mill. It was delicious and memorable.

  5. James says:

    I live in upstate NY and I saw this giant candy bar sitting on a grocery store shelf and ate it before work, chocolate cover. Halva, it was the delicious. I am a huge fan. That is the reason I searched for the origins of this great food and found this little story and website. Awesome

  6. angela says:

    Way to rewite history lol. Sesame tahini halawa was popular in Palestine, THEN adopted by askenazis who came and colonized the Palestinian land and culture. Pretty far fetched to suggest that the Ottomans passed it on to Romanian Jews. I mean really? Nice try though at cultural appropriation.

    1. Bless you for speaking the truth

    2. Rara says:

      To “Way to Rewrite History” Angela : “There is sufficient evidence that Jews have been eating Levantine halva since Biblical times. This version is made from tahini, a type of ground sesame paste that was allegedly introduced to Israel by the ancient Persians either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, although sesame and honey (the main ingredients for halva) have existed in Israel since the Natufian period. The Babylonian Exile predates the Arab conquest by more than 1,000 years, whereas the Natufian period predates the Arab invasions by 9-10,000 years, so halva is obviously not an Arab food. According to archaeologists, sesame in a “cake-like form” (halva) was eaten by Jews in ancient Israel.”
      So, depends on how far you go back, doesn’t it?

    3. Nadine says:

      The name is arabic . Iy dervies from a arabic word. Clearly the inventors named it . I rest my case iys arabic. Leave our food alone amd stop claiming it.

  7. CLIC HERE says:

    There are two types of huelva: those made with sesame paste (tahini) and those made with semolina. This type of candy is very common in the countries of the Middle East.

  8. Sam says:

    Turkish Halva is the best. Strongly recommend it. Especially the one with Pistachios from Antep region of Turkey. 🙂 E.g.

  9. Maggie says:

    Our dad use to bring this small bar gome to split with10 people..we were little and did not question..He was a German from Russia and knew about this candy…

  10. Dennis Miranda says:

    Where can I order or get the old Joiva or Hulava bars…they had what looked like light color…the other was darker almost chocolate looking and the last one was marbled…please give me an address or a web address or phone number.
    Thank you

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