Helva has always occupied a central place in Anatolian social life, be it in times of joy or of sorrow.
It is cooked and distributed to friends and family at births, deaths, circumcisions and recuperation from illness as well as at departure on and return from sojourns abroad. Far more than a taste pleasing to the palate, helva is a sociological phenomenon.
For helva is not just something to eat; it is in turn life, peace, happiness, even death.
COOKING OVER A LOW FIRE IS THE KEY
Helva, a word that means ‘sweet’ in Arabic, is derived from the term ‘hulviyyat’, a generic term for desserts.
Consequently there is a difference between the word as used in Arab cuisine and as used in Ottoman.
In Arabic it refers to sweets in general whereas in Turkish it connotes a certain type of sweets that are made from flour, molasses (or honey or sugar) and clarified butter.
Semolina and starch may also be used in place of flour in traditional Turkish helva.
Let us digress for a moment here to explain that before sugar became widely available, helva was made with either pekmez (Turkish grape molasses) or honey, the quality of the helva being directly proportionate to that of the honey used.
Let us take a look now at the pitfalls of helva making.
In order that the helva tastes good, it is important that the flour, starch or semolina used be made from the finest wheat. Browning it also requires expertise in order to achieve the characteristic tawny color. The secret to this lies in cooking it very slowly over a low fire. If the heat is too high, the helva will take on a leaden hue and acquire a bitter taste. A brief word to the wise here: most people today use margarine and water when making helva whereas the recipes in the oldest sources indicate that whole milk and butter are the proper ingredients.
The ‘tahin helva’ that is created from the magnificent blend of sesame and sugar is a sine qua non of the Turkish table in winter.
Tahin helva, which has been produced in exactly the same way for centuries, is boiled in small cauldrons over a low fire until it reaches the proper consistency, after which it is poured into molds and cooled.
When cool, it is kneaded and again placed in molds. The sesame and chocolate-flavored versions of this kind of helva, which is very difficult to make at home, are delicious whether you sandwich a slab between two slices of bread, or top off a fish feast with a wedge.
‘Summer helva’, so-called perhaps because it is light, also comes in a number of varieties, flavored with hazelnuts, raisins, walnuts or pistachios.
And the paper-thin flat discs of ‘kağıt helva’, which is in demand both summer and winter, are a particular favorite with children, especially when used to make an ice cream sandwich.
AN ACCOMPANIMENT TO CONVERSATION
Helva is consumed on a number of different occasions in Anatolian social life. It is prepared, for example, upon the birth of a new baby and is the first thing cooked in the kitchen of a newly purchased home. It is also offered as a refreshment to visitors coming to express their condolences upon a death in the family. Particularly before the spread of coffeehouses in Anatolia, people socialized in the village guesthouse where they gathered to chat in their free time following the daily chores. Along with the ubiquitous glasses of tea, the main refreshment offered during the conversation was so-called ‘tel helva’, a sort of taffy, which a few people got together to prepare. When making this variety of helva, also known as ‘pişmaniye’, people form a circle around a large table, pulling and folding the long strands until they reach the desired consistency. This helva ritual and accompanying conversation is a tradition dating back to the time of Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rûmî. Helva, which symbolizes patience in Mevlevî teachings, is the sweet most often mentioned in the works of the great Sufî thinker.
A HELVA ANECDOTE FROM NASREDDİN HODJA
Helva was also one of the most important dishes in Ottoman palace cuisine.
Indeed, the sweet-makers organization was called the ‘Helvahane Ocağı’ or Helva Makers’ Guild, otherwise known in different periods as the Imperial Helva Kitchen and the Sultan’s Helva Kitchen. This was not a only the place where helva, jams, fruit syrups, baklava, lokoum and other sweets were prepared; it was also the place where the chief physicians mixed their special formulas and medicinal syrups were concocted.
The ‘Helvay-i Hakani’ or ‘Sultan’s helva’ that was cooked here particularly in the time of Mehmed the Conqueror found its way into the palace kitchen from the cuisine of the common people of Anatolia. This variety of helva remains widespread even today around Eskişehir and Kütahya. Let us conclude with an anecdote from that inimitable Turkish sage Nasreddin Hodja as recounted in ‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ by the world-renowned cookbook writer, Claudia Roden. One day while Nasreddin Hodja is discussing food with his friends, the subject of helva comes up. “What would you like most at this very moment?” someone asks the Hodja. Without a moment’s thought the Hodja replies, “I’d like to eat some helva. I haven’t had any for a long time.” Immediately he explains why: “When we’ve got flour, we’re out of sugar. Right now we’ve got some sugar, but we’re out of butter. By the time we find some butter, we’ll be out of flour. That’s why I haven’t eaten helva for a long time.” Curious, the Hodja’s friends wonder if there was never a time when all these ingredients were on hand. “Sure,” replies the Hodja, “but I wasn’t home at the time.”
Ingredients: 100 g (1 cup) wheat starch 250 g butter (melted) 500 g honey 500 g almonds 2 cups water
Preparation: Pour hot water over the almonds and let soak briefly before removing the skins. Set aside a few whole almonds for decoration and crush the rest coarsely. In a bowl dissolve the starch in the water. Heat the honey in a double boiler, add to the starch solution and remove to a pot. Cook slowly over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When it begins to thicken and become hard to stir, add the melted butter a little at a time, stirring constantly. Then add the almonds and stir for 2-3 minutes longer. When the helva is the consistency of taffy, turn off the fire. Empty onto a plate. When cooled, cut as desired, decorate with the whole almonds and serve.
Semolina helva with orange
Ingredients: 500 g semolina 500 g granulated sugar 1 kg milk 100 g pine nuts grated peel of one orange 200 g butter
Preparation: Boil the milk with the sugar. Melt the butter in a pot and brown the semolina and the pine nuts. When they begin to color, add to the milk. Stir well and cover the pot. Let steep for 15 minutes on a low fire. Add the grated orange peel. Mix well and serve when cool.
Flour helva with clotted cream
Ingredients: 200 g clotted cream (Turkish ‘kaymak’) 1 cup flour 3 cups sugar 3 cups water or milk
Preparation: Melt the cream in a pot and add the flour. Brown for 35-40 minutes over a low fire. Boil the water and sugar in another pot, then add to the flour and mix. Cover and let rest for ten minutes over a low fire. Sprinkle with powdered cinnamon if desired, then serve.
Dark helva with molasses
Ingredients: 1/2 cup unsalted butter (melted) 1/2 cup flour 1/4 cup water or milk 1 cup grape molasses (Turkish ‘pekmez’)
Preparation: Brown the oil and flour over a very low fire for 50-60 minutes until the begin to color. In a separate pot, boil the milk and stir in the molasses. Remove the browned flour from the fire and pour over the molasses mixture. Heat again, stirring constantly to keep from sticking to the pot. Let rest for 15 minutes. Serve as desired.
Ingredients: 125 g (1 cup) flour 100 g (1 cup) wheat starch 125 g (1 cup) rice flour 3 cups milk 250 g butter 500 g honey 300 g almonds 250 g clotted cream (Turkish ‘kaymak’)
Soak the almonds in hot water to loosen the skins, then peel, setting aside a few to decorate the helva. Melt the butter in a pot, remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Add the starch, mix 1-2 minutes and add the flour and the rice flour and continue mixing until it forms a paste. Heat again and add the almonds, stirring constantly for 5-10 minutes. Boil the milk and add the honey and add slowly to the browned mixture. Stir well. When the milk is absorbed, cover tightly and let rest over a low fire for 15 minutes. Turn off the fire and stir the helva until it breaks apart like bulghur. Cut the clotted cream in pieces, sprinkle over the helva and mix again. Let rest for 15 minutes, then empty onto a serving platter. If you wish, you may pour a little rose water over it.