Sesame halva is one thing, but quite a different and very popular Greek as well as Eastern Mediterranean sweet –also called ‘halva’– is made with flour, semolina, corn or other grains toasted in butter or olive oil and steeped in syrup.
Halvas simigdalenios (semolina halva) is the Greek version of this simple old sweet. In our halva the grains are toasted in olive oil instead of the butter used in Turkey and the Middle East. I have also come across an old frugal confection of olive oil halva made with chickpea flour instead of semolina. The simple, yet enticing sweet is often prepared during Lent as it is vegan with no eggs or dairy. Halvas simigdalenios used to be the free dessert offered at Greek taverns; but now it is replaced by the simpler yogurt topped with commercial preserves or jam that requires no cooking.
Halva (or halvah) means ‘sweetmeat’ in Arabic and it can refer to several desserts. This different richer halva is also popular in Iran, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf. The grains are sautéed in butter and then moistened with sugar or honey syrup to make a soft buttery confection. In the 1862 Turkish Cookery Book by Turabi Efendi are listed several such helvãssi. Greek-Turkish author and researcher Marianna Yerasimos in her marvelous book 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine has recipes for a few such sumptuous halvas. Unlike tahin helvãsi (sesame halva) which the Ottomans considered poor people’s sweet, according to Gerasimos, these grain confections are often moistened with elaborate syrups combined with milk and enriched with almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, and other nuts.
I make halva every now and then, following my mother’s recipe but using orange juice instead of water for the syrup. When I had to accommodate a guest who avoided gluten I decided to make it with corn. I wasn’t expecting it but I liked the corn halva more than our usual semolina one!