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Semolina halva unites Turks in times of joy, sorrow

Semolina halva, a centuries-old dessert of the Levant, serves a social function that brings together families, friends and neighbors in Turkey.
Workers prepare helva, a traditional Turkish sweet prepared with sesame oil, at Konya Seker Sugar Factory in Cumra, a small town about 50km (31 miles) south of the central Anatolian city of Konya January 27, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD) - RTR2WYOL

Halva is a popular dessert with many claiming it as their own, from the Balkans to India. In Anatolia, the peninsula of land that today constitutes the Asian part of Turkey, halva has a social mission: it is shared with family and friends at joyous events such as weddings, births, circumcision ceremonies and religious celebrations. Traditionally, it is also served during Lent, at funerals and when someone leaves for hajj and is welcomed back home.

It was "semolina halva," also referred to as "funeral halva" or "veterans’ halva," that was the source of intense debate in my family. My mother, born in the Aegean town of Izmir, believed olive or almond oil should be used in the preparation of halva, while my dad, from the eastern town of Kharpout (Elazig), was adamant that semolina should be made with unsalted, high-quality butter.

My mother and aunts would make it whenever there was a family gathering. It was like therapy. We would sit in the kitchen stirring the semolina slowly over low heat. This is one part of the recipe all chefs agree on: Making halva means being patient. For the halva to turn out right, it requires constant stirring, and hence it is usually prepared by more than one person. My mother would let me stir when she would have to step away. We would reminiscence about the family members who were no longer with us. Once the halva is ready, it is shaped with spoons, and served immediately to family, friends and neighbors. Mothers in Anatolia insist their children deliver small plates of halva to the neighbors, who accept the steaming treat while uttering, “May your ancestors’ souls rest in peace.” 

Semolina halva is an ancient dessert with only a few ingredients: semolina flour (farina), sugar and oil. Optional ingredients used to enhance the taste include milk, clotted cream, carrots, dates, orange juice, dried nuts and fruits, cinnamon and even saffron. Preparing and serving halva has a long tradition. The kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, for instance, have separate dessert areas (halvahane) that date back to the days of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The palace used to prepare halva from different regions of the empire, not only for its own residents but also for the public. Drawings from those days show that for any celebration it was a tradition to serve halva.

Today, every town in Anatolia has its own method of preparing halva. There are four main types of the dessert: cheese halva, flour halva, semolina halva and tahini halva. All but tahini halva can be prepared at home. Tahini halva, in some regions also called cement (beton) halva, has a long shelf life and is sold in stores around the world. In a well-stocked grocery store in the United States, one can find boxes of tahini halva from many countries: sugar-free halva from Turkey, chocolate halva from Greece, halva with pistachios from Iran and halva with walnuts from Syria.

The Turkish language is rich in sayings that use the word halva, such as “we hope to eat his or her halva soon,” which means “wishing to see someone pass away soon”; “the dead assume the living eat halva every day,” meaning the souls of the dead yearn for prayer and attention from the living; and “your mouth will not sweeten if you keep saying halva,” meaning words can not make you a nice person. There are also folk songs about halva. The dessert is loved and consumed by all religious groups in Turkey and those from various socio-economic backgrounds.

Selin Esinli, a political scientist and food researcher, told Al-Monitor, “You can make semolina halva for different occasions — for the souls of the deceased, to commemorate the anniversary of their death [and] also if you have a sacrificial wish. You make a wish [and] if your wish comes true, you make another batch of halva with prayers of gratitude. You have to consume the halva of sacrifice at home, while all the other halva can be given to neighbors, friends and even people who smell the dessert when passing by.”

Hatice Altinisik, founder and head of the Alevi Bektasi Research Center and Alevi Bektasi Institute, who travels extensively throughout Anatolia, told Al-Monitor, “Ingredients and local names of semolina halva may vary from region to region, but the sense of community of celebration or mourning is the same. When there is a death, people support each other. Each neighbor brings one ingredient from their home to the home of the deceased. They gather around the cooker and stir the butter and semolina in a large pot. As the heat warms the semolina, you hear crying, screaming, tears flowing in the house. The scent released takes the place of the scent of death. It is therapeutic in the sense that the immediate family of the deceased knows they are not alone. The cooking ritual of semolina halva is the elegy.”

So, where can one get this semolina dessert with its gelatinous texture and translucent appearance? Most Turks agree that the best semolina halva is the one made at home. In Istanbul, a few traditional restaurants are known for serving good halva, such as Kanaat in Uskudar and Sultan Ahmet Kofte, in addition to several fish restaurants on the Bosporus. A new way of serving halva is by molding warm halva over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

One of the best semolina halva in Istanbul is prepared by chef Mehmet Yalcinkaya, who has perfected his unique recipe by traveling to different cities in the Middle East, as well as the Balkans and Greek islands. Yalcinkaya told Al-Monitor, “With recipes that require only a handful of ingredients such as semolina halva, you have to use the best ingredients and be meticulous in preparation. I prefer to use sunflower oil to cook the semolina because butter burns up, making the dessert look dark brown. Then right before it is finished we add manda kaymagi [water buffalo milk cream] and mix it in. It must be cooked in deep copper pots over low heat. This is how we do it at Ouzo Roof restaurant.”

A halva dish prepared by chef Mehmet Yalcinkaya at the Ouzo Roof restaurant (picture by Pinar Tremblay)

It is not on the Ouzo Roof menu, but Yalcinkaya said it need not be. “If you serve fish, semolina halva is a given. It is believed to control blood sugar after consuming wine or raki with fish. It is seen as a nice digestive after a meal.”

Yalcinkaya’s halva has a cream color, not brown. He roasts the pine nuts in grapeseed oil, serving the dessert lukewarm. Yalcinkaya also adds mastic from the Greek island Chios. At Ouzo Roof, the age-old dessert is presented with mango, cornelian cherry paste and a garnish of mint. It may have ice cream served along with it, which does not touch the halva. "It is a personal choice whether or not to combine the ice cream and halva. Many customers prefer just to indulge in the unique taste of halva to reminiscence about their childhood,” Yalcinkaya said.

Indeed, for many in the Levant semolina halva is like Proust’s madeleines — it brings back memories near and far, pleasant and bitter. Life, after all, is sweeter with a fine taste of halva.

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