Halva ‘ye Adas – Lentil Halva (Persian)

Persian halva, sometimes translated as “saffron cake” (don’t ask me why, it makes no sense) not to be confused with halva ardeh (more on that below) refers to a sweet, aromatic, pasty type of concoction that is made with browned flour and a syrup mixture of sugar, rosewater, cardamom and saffron. (Lentil halva is an uncommon type of halva – belonging to a genre of lost/forgotten dishes. I found its recipe in my very favorite Persian cookbook, written by a wonderful gentleman, Najaf Daryabandari.)

Halva is sweet but not considered a dessert in that it has doleful associations and is intricately tied-in with bereavement. When someone dies, close friends and relatives make and distribute halva to the needy in the name of, and for the sake of the soul of the deceased – a gesture practiced by the religious and secular alike. (This idea of paying personal, emotional, respect may explain why halva, unlike most other Persian sweets, is almost always made at home and not purchased.) Halva is also foremost amongst the food customarily served at wakes and memorials. Which makes sense when you think about it: halva is a comfort food and thus a solace; and it smells good and tastes sweet, which can momentarily brighten a bleak occasion by delighting the senses; but it is also a mild food in flavor and sedate in demeanor – nothing too flashy or jovial about it despite the pistachio sprinkles – perfectly suited to the tone of a somber occasion such as a funeral.

When I was a kid I cared less than little for halva, no doubt in part due to its melancholy not-fun associations, and preferred the more vivacious sholeh zard, but I have new-found regard for this simple dish, that if partaken in a few spoonfuls, is a wonderful amuse bouche, satisfying the sweet tooth; and if accompanied with flatbread, as it is possible to do, makes for delicious bites and a fulfilling meal. I’m fond of the texture of halva as well, which ideally should be soft but not gooey, sticky but not chewy, a melt-in-your-mouth pasty consistency reminiscent of the type filling found inside some Japanese pastries or Chinese red bean buns. (If one is successful when making the halva that is, ahem, cough, cough.)

Now there’s another (entirely distinctive) type of sweet that we call halva ardeh in Iran but which is widely known as halva everywhere else: a block-shaped confection with a dense dry texture that crumbles when you cut into it; popular in Turkey, Greece, all across the Middle-East, Eastern Europe and a whole bunch of other countries besides. Iranians don’t treat halva ardeh as a dessert either and have it for an occasional breakfast treat or an afternoon snack – usually with some bread.

How did halva ardeh come to be – you might wonder? Remember how the entire genre of Persian borani came to be thanks to Queen Porandokht and her finicky tastes? Well, it turns out that halva ardeh is another example of a type of food that owes its origin to the demands of Persian royalty, the royalty in question this time being the 17th century Safavid Dynasty ruler of Iran, Shah Abbas Bozorgh (the Great.)

It is said that Shah Abbas tasked one of his trusted advisors (Sheikh Bahayee: a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and poet) to concoct a compact, nutritious and portable food for his army. After due diligence, Sheikh Bahayee came up with the original halva ardeh recipe: ground sesame (rich in protein and iron) mixed with grape syrup – end result being a durable, palatable, highly-caloric food that traveled well. (Speaking of the grape syrup part of the recipe, a Persian proverb, preaching perseverance, goes like this: “With patience, we can make halva with unripe grapes.” Indeed. Indeed.) So! It turns out halva ardeh is an early iteration of … SPAM? That’s kind of … amusing!

I can’t pass up this opportunity to chat just a tiny bit about Shah Abbas the Great – one of the more significant rulers of Iran. On the glittering bright side, his reign was a true golden age for Persian arts and humanities — calligraphy, miniature painting, mural making, carpet weaving and design, illuminated arts, book binding, and architecture all flourished under his rule – a brilliant and enduring legacy, which includes the poetically beautiful city of Isfahan. On the downright horrific side, he killed one son and blinded the other two due to ill-proven suspicions of their usurping his throne, terrible acts which apparently threw him into a depressive funk. Which, no kidding … dear God! And on the facial-hair-side, which may just become a de-facto theme of this blog (to wit: see that other fabulously-mustachioed king) Shah Abbas shaved off his beard at the age of 19, keeping only his mustache, thus setting a fashion trend in Iran in his time.

Recipe for lentil halva (oh yeah, that’s what we were talking about!) immediately following, but please indulge me with a final detour – a brief reverie induced by studying this beautiful, richly detailed (Wiki-sourced) wall mural from the Chehel Sotoon Gassr (40 Pillar Palace) in Isfahan – depicting a festive scene of Shah Abbas receiving visiting dignitaries (a defeated rival Uzbek leader and his people) at his court, offering what seems to be a plate of food to his guest of honor:

Note the 3 separate cloth-spreads of food (or what we call sofreh in Persian, used to set/serve food before the Western dining protocol became commonplace) set in front of the seated guests. Also note all the hipster mustaches (but no beard for the Persian guests – per the fashion trend of the day set by the king! The Uzbek guests have not received the memo and still sport beards.) The fruit served seems to be a mixture of apples, pears and plums and … maybe pomegranates? The woman at the bottom right is pouring a beverage for a guest – I wonder, what kind of beverage? This was 17th century Iran, well after the conquest of the Persian empire by Arabs and the advent of Islam, but m’ey (a poetic and generic term for “intoxicating drink,” i.e booze) is all over Omar Khayams’s poetry and … let’s just say I would not be shocked if the woman is a saghi offering a libation that is more potent than juice. To have been a fly on the wall! Someone invent a time machine already!

[Edited last minute to add that a rare Persian carpet from the Safavid dynasty period (the Shah Abbas era) just sold for a record-breaking $33.7 million at Sotheby’s auction house in New York!]

  • 1 cup lentil
  • 1/4 cup rosewater
  • 4-5 cardamom pods (gently crushed so that the pods are slightly open)
  • 1 cup (or a little less) sugar
  • pinch of ground saffron
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1 tablespoon ground pistachio for garnish (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon slivered almonds for garnish (optional)

  1. Make a rosewater+cardamom+sugar+saffron syrup like so: a) gently crush (but do not ground) cardamom pods till the pods open; b) bring cardamom pods and seeds and 1/2 cup of water to a soft boil and continue to boil over low heat until water is reduced in half; c) filter cardamom water through a paper coffee filter or using a fine sieve and discard the pods and seed and allow it to cool; d) add 1/4 cup rosewater to the cardamom water; e) to this add sugar, saffron, and 1/2 cup of boiling-hot water, stir to mix until dissolved. Set syrup aside for now. (You can do this step while the lentil is cooking.)
  2. Cook lentil and water (enough water to cover it about an inch or so) to a rapid boil; reduce heat to low and cook slowly until water completely evaporates. (Approximately 30-45 minutes, perhaps a bit longer.) Drain well.
  3. With the aid of a tenderizer (or the back of a wooden spoon, etc.) squish lentils and create as mushy and smooth a texture as possible.
  4. Heat 1/2 cup of olive oil in a wide pan over medium heat. Once you hear the oil sizzling, pour in the mushed lentils and saute for 15-20 minutes or until the lentil puree subtly darkens in color.
  5. Gradually pour in the rosewater+cardamom+sugar+saffron syrup (as prepared in step 1) and stir to mix. Continue to cook on low heat, stirring frequently, until all the liquid is absorbed and ideally a thin layer of oil forms over the paste. (This could take as long as up to an hour, give or take!)
  6. Transfer halva to a serving dish and smoothly spread it evenly (using your fingers or a kitchen tool) across the surface. If you wish, you can indent decorative ridges on the surface with the aid of a cookie cutter or another tool. It is optional, yet traditional, to garnish with whimsical patterns of ground pistachio and slivered almonds.

Slice wedges to serve, or just dole some out with a serving spoon. Savor as it melts in your mouth. A spoonful or two of lentil halva makes for a little sweet pick-me-up-whenever snack, as well as a nice treat that goes quite nicely with afternoon tea. You can also eat halva with flat bread and make a meal of it. Super yum.

Halva can be served hot or cold. (Freshly made and hot off the stove is the best and tastiest of course)

That’s it folks. Nooseh jan!

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Comments (43)

  • The Healthy Epicurean 8 years ago Reply

    I adore your strories :-), the halva sounds like nectar and the photos are fab…

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    There is a specific food called “nectar”? I should look that up. & thank you re delightful compliment. I can in good conscience return it to you in full!

    The Healthy Epicurean 8 years ago

    Acually I meant to say ‘ambrosia’ (Food of the Gods); ‘nectar’ is Drink of the Gods… Derrr…

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago

    It’s not “that” good – let’s say it is ambroia-ISH! ha ha

  • laurasmess 8 years ago Reply

    Your presentation is always absolutely flawless Azita. I love the history, stories and photographs… so gorgeous! I’ve never known how to make halva but I love eating it. I’ll try this recipe soon… I’m planning a Persian food night for friends in a couple of weeks and this would be a gorgeous sweet treat to finish the meal. Any other Persian dessert suggestions? xx

  • Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Mersi Laura joon! 🙂 First rule of a Persian food night is to add a “joon” or “jan” to everone’s name! Ha ha.
    Halva could definitely be a nice sweet but I also strongly recommend Fae’s luscious Bakhlava cake (http://fae-magazine.com/2013/03/20/baklava-cake/)and of course I’d be remiss not to mention tut! Links to Tut plus some other ideas in this post: http://bit.ly/16MG0qN
    Also, if I may butt in, I’d personally really recommend any/all 3 of these dishes for a Persian food night, Kookook sabzi (http://bit.ly/KEBBVB) & Yatimcheh (http://bit.ly/KO73TA) & Mast ‘o khiyar (http://bit.ly/QyCxnh) all are simple (well kookoo takes some doing but it’s not horribly complicated) but really delicious
    And finally, wow, how fun, and I truly WISH I could fly over and invite myself to what I’m sure will be a really wonderful dinner party. Hopefully you’ll do a blog post with details and pix??

  • tinywhitecottage 8 years ago Reply

    I absolutely love your posts! Always beautifully poetic and visually stimulating. I first tried halva in Greece several years ago. I really enjoyed it and after trying halva a fews time here in the states have not been impressed at all. Your pistachio garnish is gorgeous and I am sure it gives a perfect taste. Oh, and the heart….sigh.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Umm, the halva in Greece must have been really delicious. I’ve been there a couple of times – but before I really got interested in food. Wasted opportunity! And thank you (times 10 then times 10 again) for the lovely words = music to my ears 🙂

  • apuginthekitchen 8 years ago Reply

    I check my email first thing in the morning every day, when I see a post from you I read it but don’t comment immediately, the reason for that is that you produce such a beautiful piece of work I have to absorb it, does that sound stupid? I love the halva, and as always masterfully written, photographed and executed.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    OK, Suzanne, that’s among the sweetest things any one has said to me. I actually read your comment on my phone just before I was about to hop on the subway and throughout the ride I was absorbing it and buoyed by it with a goofy smile I couldn’t suppress! Thank you!!!

  • ladyredspecs 8 years ago Reply

    Fabulous post Azita. I love the cultural orientation accompanying the recipe. We visited a fabulous exhibition last year of illuminated Persian love poems, gorgeous gilded miniatures dating back 500 – 600 years. They were a delight to see! Your photo of the feasting king brought them to mind.

  • Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Thank you! I’m so happy to read this, Sandra, because I often think I should aim for more concise posts instead of rattling on and on, so it’s really good to know that it is of some interest and I’m not boring you to tears.
    Thank you for sharing the info about the illuminated love poems! That sounds like such a romantic and beautiful exhibition – wish I’d seen it. Love it! 🙂

  • johnnysenough hepburn 8 years ago Reply

    I doubt if you could ever bore anyone to tears. Well, certainly not in the blogosphere. Like everyone else I relish your writing. And your recipes. Seriously? Lentils? Who knew they could be this delicious. I’m off to the small International store next week so I must buy in rosewater and saffron, the latter for one of my favourite chicken dishes, a cardamom and saffron (there’s a surprise) dry curry.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Ha ha, I see what you were doing there. Thank you and yes, lentils, which I think is healthier than frying flour – and apparently it’s possible to substitute any number of cooked/mushed up legume such as beans, or use even cooked beets to mix and cook with the syrup to make the halva. IF you try the recipe, do let me know how it goes.

  • lizzygoodthings 8 years ago Reply

    I love your posts… they are so delicious and so educational!

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Thank you Lizzy!

  • Maria Dernikos 8 years ago Reply

    Your photographs are so beautiful. I was so interested to read all about the history too. This is the second time you have mentioned men’s facial hair it made me start to think of how it appeared during the centuries. I hadn’t really thought how important it was. Your research and wonderful recipes are always something I love to read.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Ha ha, yeah, I seem to have have fallen into an unintentional men’s facial fashion subtopic – and for sure, it’s hard to resist commenting on the rather dramatic ways men used to wear their mustaches and beards, etc. I’m so glad that you enjoy reading about these things … it’s definitely fun to share as well.

  • I am really glad I found your blog! it is like a window into a world I find enchanting!
    I only know the halva made of sesame seeds, the idea of one made of adas (that is the arabic word for lentils too) is beyond interesting!
    P.s. Loved reading your breakdown of the mural

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Oh no idea that adas means lentil in Arabic as well but in the course of writing this found out (at least per Google) that halva means sweet in Turkish and also Arabic? Yes the sesame seed halva is what we call “halva ardeh” which is entirely distinct from the pastry-type of halva.
    I used to be quite bored with these type of murals but find them utterly fascinating now. Glad you enjoyed the breakdown! 🙂

    In Arabic it is halawa with a w in place of the v but very similar indeed. 🙂
    I too used to find such murals boring but when you study the amount of details in them and how much they can tell you about a time long gone, you change your mind

  • tableofcolors 8 years ago Reply

    What an interesting post! Thank you for the insight on the history of halva…something that is very new to me. I am really only acquainted with the “sweeter” variety.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Thank you! I’m enchanted by the many interesting and pretty things and customs and glimpses I’ve found/seen about Finland through your blog and happy to return the favor in turn to some degree.

  • radhika25 8 years ago Reply

    Azita, I enjoyed reading this post- I love food, I love history and I absolutely love the history of food!
    We (in India) make many halwas- But the quickest comfort food equivalent, is made of semolina or wheat flour. That sounds healthy, but its usually floating in ghee and is about 5000 calories per spoonful.
    So glad I found your blog!!!

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    That’s awesome – thank you – I agree that history of food is just … delicious!
    Just Googled some Indian Halwa, and yup, looks quite look ours. I’d say I’ll run out to buy some somewhere but then I hear the ominous echo of “5000 calories” which: heh! So ghee … never made it myself but I really should explore it – I’ve heard of it of course.
    So VERY haPPY to know you as well!

    radhika25 8 years ago

    A lot of North Indian culture borrowed heavily from the Persian court- because of the Mughals.
    So, while I don’t know whether halwa was an import or an export- we make halwa from carrots, beetroot, bottlegourd, ash gourd, moong lentils in addition to the semolina and wheat flour varieties.
    Wanted to ask, but forgot, was your halva made from moong lentils?
    And ghee is really easy to make. Just boil butter until the milk solids separate.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago

    How ineresting! Thank God for the Internet so that we can exchange notes with each other from across the world.
    I do know that both carrot and beetroot are used in contemporary cuisine of Iran back home, from what I’ve heard and also what I’ve found on Persian webpages. Lentil is supposedly a forgotten dish – recipe found in that cookbook I mentioned in the post. I used ordinary lentils, but you can use moong if you’d like.
    Now, you’ve got me both stomped and intrigued as to exactly what bottlegourd and ash gourd are?
    I think there’s something similar to ghee in Persian cooking too – I’ll have to ask my mother. Huh, so just boil until it separates? I CAN do that! 😉

  • radhika25 8 years ago Reply

    Ok, gourds are water based vegetables that are used a lot, in tropical countries. Ash gourd is also called white pumpkin or “kaddu”. The chinese call it winter melon. And bottle gourd, is called “lauki” or “dhoodi” in Hindi.
    In addition there are many other gourds used in Indian cooking– ridge gourd, bitter gourd, snake gourd etc. Most Indian restaurants won’t serve you these (glamorous) veggies, but homecooking uses are these and more.
    Ghee, is made in a very similar manner to browned butter (for cookies, cakes etc.) but is cooked only until the sediments turn brown. If over boiled, the ghee is too soft (slimy?) with no texture. Perfect ghee is golden and grainy when semi solid, and a clear molten gold when liquid. I use unsalted butter or Lurpak to make my ghee. You’ve got to watch over it, because it will boil over rapidly, and you’ll lose half your ghee in an instant.
    We use it to do the “tadka”, (tempering) for our dishes. Make our pulaos with it, and of course our halwas.
    Indian confectioners are called “Halwais” and the wheat halwa is a dish that is made in temples and gurdwaras, as an offering to the Gods. So maybe this was one instance of a dish travelling from India to Iran 🙂
    Sorry for such a long winded comment.

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Oh my God, this was so interesting to read and chock full of wonderful detail. I mean, won’t you do a post about it? I know I for one would lap up such a post entirely. So, I love knowing that “halwais” is the name of Indian confectioners and your theory sounds plausible … it may very well be a case of this dish makings its way to Iran from India – the meaning behind it of an offering to the Gods makes sense that it would then be transmuted to an offering to God for the soul of the departed. I think that’s plausible! Good theory! Have more to say but then this comment will become a novella. I’ll say it again: you should write a post about this. Please!!! 🙂

    radhika25 8 years ago

    You’ve inspired me!!!

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago

    Yes! Can’t wait. 😀

  • Fae's Twist & Tango 8 years ago Reply

    What a great post, Azita jan! Most contents refreshingly new information to me. I had never heard of lentil halva or other vegie-halvas you mentioned. There is still a lot we can learn from one-another.
    I am so~ very proud of you as a fellow Iranian. I know I have said it before, but you are a delightful communicator! 😀

    Fig & Quince 8 years ago Reply

    Fae, I was so interested in hearing your take on this and finding out what you make of it and happy that it was of interest to you and a new thing. Adas halva was entirely new to me as well until I read about it in that cookbook mentioned in the post. A very good book but not yet translated into English alas. And the other stuff, goes without saying that: del be del rah dareh (and as I mentioned, so happy you’re back! You were missed! And I’m sure not just by me.)

  • leduesorelle 8 years ago Reply

    Wonderful! The post, history, and both halvas! Reminds me the strangely dry dessert-type cakes that we would spurn as youths, but now crave as a memory food…

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  • sheraz 4 years ago Reply

    your recipe is looking nice

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