Open Sesame: The History of Halvah
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?