In my memories, halva looked like this, and tasted amazing--like a milder, drier peanut butter with a warm sweetness. I've since learned that there are many flavors and styles of halva. All delicious, I'm sure! Photo courtesy of http://de.academic.ru
One of my Yoga students and I were talking recently about found objects. He was rocking a sweater that he’d lost for two years. He’d come across it recently, buried deep in a closet. He was slightly thrilled to have pulled it from the abyss. It was there waiting for him all along, it seemed, even though he’d long ago written it off as lost.
“Finding something like that is kind of like finding an old friend, isn’t it?,” I asked. He agreed.
The same concept can certainly apply to food, I think. One of my most precious lost-then-found foods? Halva.
Years ago, as a kid visiting family in Iran, I remember eating this pasty, thick, energizing treat with breakfast. As a kid with not too many culinary points of reference, I remember it reminded me of a mild peanut butter, with a drier texture. One of the many things I liked about it, even then, is the way it was sweet, but not too sweet.
Turns out I was right–it was indeed a nut butter, and one that was sweetened, but not aggressively so. Well, technically, the one I remember was a seed butter. Of sesame seeds in particular. . .But let me not get ahead of myself.
The type of halva I remember from childhood was made from a sesame see base. In Arabic, it's called halawa. It's all based on an Arabic root word, halwa, that means sweet.
Many years passed, and I sometimes was reminded of that amazing food, but never thought to ask anyone what it was, or even where I could find it. I’d only had it a few times, but I’d find myself missing it from time to time. But halva was somehow locked away in a time warp, a part of my past I’d allowed to slip away.
More time passed, and one day, after moving to New York, a friend casually shared some with me. At first, I didn’t think it could possibly be the treat I’d enjoyed so many years ago at my aunt and uncle’s house, eating a breakfast spread out on a tablecloth on the floor, surrounded by cups of steaming tea and chattering family and love.
But it was. “What is this stuff called?,” I asked. Because you see, I’d never known its name.
“Halva,” he replied.
Pistachios are one of many types of nuts that can dress up halva.
Memory has a funny way of distorting things. It’s easy to idealize or demonize the past. In the many times I’d wondered about halva, I’d also thought, in the very next moment, that there was no way it could possibly be as delectable as I remembered.
I was so, so wrong. It was even better than I remembered.
Ok guys, don’t laugh. I have to admit that tears sprang to my eyes when I ate that first bite of halva after so many years. It was like being reunited with a long lost friend. With a past that still lives in my heart and with the family I haven’t seen in so very long. With my childhood memories. Unbelievable.
The fact that I could walk down memory lane via halva? Kinda crazy, I know. That I can walk to a nearby store and actually buy this stuff still boggles my mind. For that reason, I don’t eat it all the time. It seems too precious for that, somehow. So I buy it occasionally, and really savor every rich, dreamy bite.
I suppose I could learn how to make it, but I haven’ t yet bothered. I’ve since learned that one could have an entire department store devoted to halva. The kind I had was only one of many versions. There are flour and semolina-based versions. There are halvas based on lentils and even vegetables like pumpkin. Every country and region and probably even province from Greece to Afghanistan seems to have its own take on halva, with the spelling variations to match . Which is wonderful, and I hope to try as many as possible.
For now, though, I’m content with the minor miracle of having halva back in my life in the first place. And yes, I sometimes even still tear up a bit at that first bite. Which I suppose is somehow appropriate–Only as an adult did I learn that halva is a traditional food at funerals in Iran. Passing into the next life with something sweet, nourishing, and light for those left behind to enjoy? There could be worse things, I suppose.
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