The Multicultural Narrative of the Dessert Called Halva


Halva is a dessert consumed throughout the Middle East. It’s mostly served especially when mourning the dead. Its uniqueness and diversity across cultures has made it so significant. People who have tasted Halva mostly have something to say about it.

“Growing up i ate halva and enjoyed it as a snack; but when i grew up i hardly eat halva without thinking of the death of my grandparants. Whenever i prepare Halva, i share the dessert with neighbors in remember of my deceased grandparents.  Doing this gives me the feeling that my grandparents are watching and will be happy that i remember them”.  Assist. Prof. Dr. Ulfet Kutoglu Kuruc narrates her personal connection with Halva as a  Cypriot.

irmik-helvasi-tarifiHalva means sweetness and it comes from the word Halawa in Arabic. As mentioned earlier it is a dessert; served as dessert or sweet. It is served across south Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa the Balkans, Central Europe, the Jewish world etc.

It falls into two bases; the flour base (un), semolina (Irmik, Tahin/Sesame). It is served in Cyprus, Turkey, Iran and so many other countries in different forms and for different occasions; mostly at funerals and other religious events. Interestingly the most common association with Halva is death and memories of departed loved ones.

And you might want to ask; Why death? Elnaz Nasehi; a PhD student of the Faculty of Communication who is an Iranian explains that Halva is light and sweet and it has ingredients in it that helps to relax the nerves and give some sense of relief. “Loss of appetite is usual for anyone who is bereaved and halva is the best choice” she posits. In her words, For me, I prepare halva whenever i feel like eating it; not necessarily when there is a demise. However it also brings back memories of departed friends’and family as well”.
While praying for the soul of the departed, halva is served on the third day, seventh day, and fourteenth day and yearly to mark the date. It is mostly served on Thursdays for Iranians and Fridays for The Cypriots and Turkish people. During the preparation of halva, people take turns in mixing the  combination of ingredients used to make the halva and they do, they say prayers individually for the soul of the departed.

Halva is often regarded as a prefferred dessert throughout the Middle East. Hence it has become a form of business as today we have companies that make well packaged Halva. Halva today is usually served in varied assorted forms, well garnished and served with different nuts and it’s beautifully decorated. It may look different in color but it’s the same ingredient and almost same taste; it’s just that during the preparation flour is heated more which gives it a different look.  Different cultures add different spices to their halva, for Iranians, they add spices like Zaferan to give it more taste.

Sesames based Halva is mostly eaten with tea. The Iranians sometimes have it as breakfast but the Turkish (Tahin Halvasi) is eaten as dessert. 
It could be a dessert but it has become a strong social agent; giving people from different ethnic background something in common to share it is all called Halva served for the same purpose could be pronounced differently but its same thing.

By Munbang Sheena Dimka