Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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halvah means “sweetmeat” in Arabic, and diverse preparations throughout the eastern Mediterranean share this generic name. In Lebanon and Syria, in Israel and Jewish communities all over the world, and in Greece and the Balkans, halvah generally refers to a tahini-based sweet (also known as halva, helva, halwa, or halawa).

Halvah is first mentioned in the thirteenth-century Arabic Kitāb al-Ţabīkh (The Book of Dishes), where halwā yabisā (dry sweetmeat) describes a sugar candy with almonds and sesame or poppy seeds, flavored with saffron and cinnamon. It appears to be similar to the sesame and honey candy called pasteli in Greek, a different type of confection. See greece and cyprus. In his seventeenth-century Seyahatname (Book of Travels), Evliya Çelebi, the famous Ottoman chronicler of the eastern Mediterranean, mentions tahin helvāsi or tahine. He describes the street vendors of halvah in Istanbul, praises the quality of halvah in Bursa, and writes that Konya’s most revered sweet was halvah. See turkey.