The Arabic term halva is used either for a flour or nut based dessert. My first contact with sesame halva was at the age on nine when my parents brought a gift box from Lebanon. It tasted unlike any other sweet before. Although it was light and crumbled when touched, the sugar and nut butter melted in the mouth. It had an earthly smell, almost like timber mixed with honey like sap. I ate it with discipline, a tiny portion at a time, and when it finally finished several months later, I washed and kept the container for years. It accelerated, with the Arabic writing on the lid, my imagination as a child. Just by looking at the red plastic casket, I travelled far away from cold and snowy Finland and saw camels, peacocks and parrots zigzagging among men in turbans and noisy traffic! It probably wasn’t an accurate view of Western Asia or Middle East but it kept me entertained.
Semolina or suji halva was one of the first Indian treats I had a decade later. Made by frying wheat in butter or ghee, the texture and taste are different. At best, it is soft, succulent and rich. Many times nuts and raisins are added, as well as spices like saffron and cardamom.
My favourite halva is made with fresh strawberries and strawberry jam. Because the berry season is gone for this year, I made yesterday a basic version using caramelized sugar, milk and orange zest. Instead a wheat, I used spelt grits. I like fine semolina (spelt) instead of coarse because it makes halva pudding-like. Finer the better.
Semolina used for halva is not Italian durum-wheat but rather what is known as cream of wheat in the States. In Finnish, it is called manna which I mistakenly thought to be a biblical reference to the flake-like frost on the ground provided to the Israelites by God during their travels in the desert! From heaven or not, I couldn’t stand it as a child. Manna porridge and its pink relative, lingonberry porridge, caused me nightmares! And yet, it took me one visit to India to fall in love with halva and upma, a salty semolina breakfast favourite cooked with vegetables! Most likely I was born into a wrong culinary tradition.
I served the halva with figs roasted in butter and sugar, caramel sauce and salted almond slivers (toasted with fresh rosemary).