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!
- 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)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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!