• 5 Things You Need To Know

5 Things You Need to Know About Halvah

PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Bourgeois
By Ellen Bhang · 04/20/2020

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When Victoria Wallins began researching whether making halvah could be her next venture, one producer discouraged her from trying. He himself was having a difficult time manufacturing and marketing the sweet sesame treat. “That was the green light I needed,” says Wallins. “Halvah was such an unknown, but I knew I had a real gift for starting my own thing.” The entrepreneur had already established and operated two coffee bars, in Brookline and Chestnut Hill, in the ’90s; and later, a home décor shop in Wellesley, which she closed to pursue halvah. Today, under the brand Halvah Heaven, she turns out 10 flavors, including a five-spice-seasoned Silk Road, a lemony Fiore di Sicilia, and a comforting Peanut Butter, a variety not currently listed on her website. She crafts the confections in 18-pound batches at Tuck’s Candies, near her home in Rockport, Massachusetts. “Here was a candy that could be vegan and non-gluten,” she recalls thinking. “It checked all the boxes of where food was going.”

1. Halvah is made throughout the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and right here in the US.
Halvah is most associated with the Middle East, but the confection is made all over. “Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Greece all have versions,” Wallins explains. Latvia and Russia also produce their own varieties. In America, it was popularized by a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who arrived in New York at the beginning of the 20th Century and established a factory that became Joyva, still one of the most recognized brands today.

2. Tahini, the heart of halvah, benefits from an introduction.  
“Most people don’t know what tahini is, or they think of it as an ingredient in hummus,” says Wallins. The entrepreneur explains that producing tahini is not as easy as grinding peanut butter. Those itty-bitty seeds undergo a lengthy process that involves sieving, hulling, salt-washing, rinsing, and roasting before they are ground into a uniformly blond paste. She tested several different kinds before selecting one made by a Lebanese manufacturer that sources sesame seeds from Sudan.

3. Halvah’s texture varies according to the kind of sweetener in the mix.
“Halvah is all about texture,” enthuses Wallins. The confection shatters as you slice off a piece, and dissolves into a rich, pleasing stickiness once you pop it in your mouth. Wallins explains that the molecular structures of different sugars affect the finished product. Varieties made with honey and maple syrup offer more of a dense chew than those crafted with cane sugar.

4. Few commercial brands can boast that they are organic and vegetarian-friendly.
Many commercially made brands of halvah contain corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and egg ingredients. Wallins eschews those things, opting instead for organic and vegetarian-friendly components. Even an unfamiliar ingredient like quillaja root extract, which fluffs up the candy’s texture, is plant-derived. “‘Foaming agent’ sounds malevolent, but it’s not,” she says reassuringly. “It’s sustainable and used by the root beer industry to make that foamy head.”

5. Halvah is excellent on a party platter or delicious right out of the bag.
“I’ve done a lot of fruit plates with dried figs, dates, and dried coconut,” says Wallins. “It’s great as a grated topping on yogurt and you can crumble it into a fruit crisp.” Not surprisingly, some of her halvah never makes it all the way home. “People will drive and eat it while going down the highway,” she declares. “They tell me, ‘I ate the whole thing.’”

Halvah Heaven flavors can be purchased online at halvahheaven.com ($6.50 per 4-ounce package plus taxes and shipping) and at retailers including Cambridge Naturals, Porter Square Shopping Center, Cambridge, 617.492.4452; and Debra’s Natural Gourmet, Concord, 978.371.7573.

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