Everyone knows and loves halva. Well, perhaps not everyone loves halva but most people know it, the tahini one that is. Still, despite halva being fairly common now, few people know how it’s made. And I have to admit that I didn’t except for the one time, many many years ago, when I made  it following a recipe from Leslie Kenton’s  Raw Energy, and after I nearly broke my food processor trying to grind the sesame seeds, I ended up with a halva that bore no resemblance to any  I ever had — there are other types of halva but more on that in future posts. In any case, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally saw halva being made, and what a revelation that was. I was being taken round the old souks of Aleppo by a wonderful character and a friend now, Hassan Khoja who is the burly man in the first video below, when we stopped at the shop of a friend of his, Omar Akesh, who sells tahini and halva which he produces in a sprawling and rather medieval space behind and above his shop. The only thing I knew then was that shirsh al-halaweh (meaning the root or vein of sweetness in Arabic, or plain soapwort root in English) was used in the making of halva (it is listed as one of the ingredients) although I wasn’t quite sure how. So here is what I found out.

First you need tahini, and to make tahini, sesame seeds have to be roasted, soaked, hulled and pressed, all of which are done by Omar’s men in the upstairs room. Then the soapwort roots have to be boiled to produce a brown liquid which when beaten miraculously turns into a brilliant white foam (because of the saponin). This foam is then mixed with sugar syrup to produce a meringue-like dip called natef, which is also served with karabij halab, a crumbly  ‘cookie’ filled with pistachio nuts. In fact, the natef that goes with the karabij is slighly different from the natef that is used in halva but I can’t remember the proportions now — somewhere I have notes telling me the ratios. The natef is made in a kind of tin machine/beater (sadly the only part of the process which I didn’t manage to photograph or film) and once it’s ready, it is mixed with the tahini. The mixture is then processed in three different stages. First it is churned as you can see in the video above. Once the halva maker judges it ready to be beaten, he attaches a huge wooden pestle to an automated arm which will drop it into and lift it from the mixture at a regular pace, while he goes on scraping the halva from the sides and pestle to ensure perfect blending.

And now comes the final stage, which is the kneading of the halva. The mixture is transferred into a beautiful large metal bowl with a round bottom so that it can be rocked back and forth, and the halva maker kneads the mixture until it is smooth before portioning it out and packing it in plastic boxes.

At Omar Akesh, and elsewhere, you can buy halva plain, or you can choose the more expensive version with pistachio nuts. The nuts are usually pressed on the outside of the halva cake but there is a more luxurious version with more pistachio nuts that are kneaded into the mixture. Here is a close-up of  soapwort as well as a few shots of the sequence of events in the making of halva.

shirsh el-halaweh 3 copy

halva 1 copy halva 2 copy halva 4 copy halva 7 copy halva - kneading 1 copy halva - kneading 2 copy halva - kneading 3 copy halva - kneading 4 copy

halva - weighing & packing copy

There is 33 comments on this post

  • Anissa, up until now I have no idea how halva was produced. I have recently been given some in chocolate and coffee flavours!

  • Anissa fascinating post tahnks you so much for sharing the information and videos.

    Pistachio Halva is a truly wonderful sweet (in moderation) and after reading this post I need to get some quick !

  • I almost never buy halva. You see, I live alone and I love it so much that I would probably eat the whole thing in one sitting! 🙂 So I avoid it until I go to my parents’ house, then I have some with my dad, right after dinner, with some pita bread and butter; yum! I do wish I had some right now.

  • Thanks for this, Anissa. I love halva, and always wondered the sequence of its production.

  • Dear Anissa, I trust that you returned from your trip already and that it went really well. I look forward to your stories! This post was very enjoyable. I love halva, and it is interesting to look inside the process a bit.

    As for shirsh al-halaweh, I am yet to locate it, but I really want to find it to make karabij as well as an Uzbek sweet called nishalda. Here is a post from a livejournal I found online where you can see Uzbek nishalda as it is sold in Tashkent markets.
    The article is in Russian, but the 5th and 6th photos are of nishalda. Looks luxurious!

    By the way, my cookbook collection now has your “Moroccan Cafe,” a lovely addition. I am planning to try something from it this weekend.


  • thanks victoria. i should be able to send you some shirsh el-halaweh soon as i will be setting up an online store for specialist ingredients in the near future. let me know how your moroccan dish works out. the trip was great. will write up something soon.

  • i forgot to say thanks for the link. v interesting.

  • Anissa, what wonderful news! I am very excited to hear about these plans for a store. Please let me know when it starts functioning.
    I can share my recipe for nishalda, if you are curious. I have a feeling that it is not very different from natef. As a child, I loved it, but I have not had it in 10 years or so. I am looking forward to recreating it. 🙂

  • i would love to have the recipe victoria. would be v interested to see how it’s made there.

  • paulo roberto lemos raad
    October 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    sou do brasil e gostaria maiores informaçoes, sobre soapwort, processo de fazer com maior riqueza de detalhes o halva tahine, e natef que nao sei o que e. mas estou satisfeito com postagem, aguardo uma resposta , obrigado…..saudaçoes…

  • i am sorry but i don’t speak portuguese. i am assuming you are asking for more information?

    thank you SO much!
    we love your info n the way you talk about your love for food.

    be well!!!!!
    rainer. susan. kim

  • J'Marinde Shephard
    June 3, 2011 at 11:20 am

    This came up in a google search for recipes for halvah using tahinin. How about a recipe or two for :
    Halvah made with tahini and
    pistachio halvah????


    thank you for this very informative tour. It is fascinating!

  • it’s not so easy making this kind of halvah at home. i have a recipe from kenton’s raw energy but it is nothing like the proper halva. also v difficult to grind sesame seeds at home. if u go to the natef post, you will be able to make it. then you need to mix the natef with tahini, then churn, then beat et voila, halva! i promise it is not easy 🙂

  • Dear Anissa, many thanks for your exceptional article on the Halva process .
    I’m looking for technical since a long time and your blog help me on this hard way!
    I ve an essential probleme of temperature to obtain a perfect cristallisation and the real structure inside
    Could you remember if the mix of natef and tahin is warm or hot, if the mixer which is use to churning halva is hot also or no…
    If you have some old details in your notes, maybe they could be for me like a treasure.
    Best regards.

  • You are welcome Thomas. I don”t think the mixture is hot and also it would not be warm. Mated is made cold and tahini separates if it is heated at too high a temperature although you can remix it. But I will not swear to it. Will have to confirm this.

  • Hi Anissa,

    The halva that I like to eat has only 3 ingredients in it: Tahini, Honey, Pistachios. Do you have any idea how they get the crumbly flaky texture to happen with just those 3 ingredients. I would really like to learn how to make this however finding recipes has proved to be very hard.


  • well, it is not the real halva, or at least not real by arab halva makers’ standards. i once made a similar version from leslie kenton’s raw energy book. you grind sesame seeds with honey or sugar in a food processor, which is not so easy given that the seeds have a hard to break husk and mix in hte pistachios then pat into a cake. it wasn’t bad. just not like the halva you buy from professional halva makers 🙂

  • Hi Anissa, am I glad I ran into your post. It does shred a lot of light on my unsuccessful efforts to make halva at home. Seeing is believing as they say, and having seen the short videos it is nothing like the receipts floating on the Internet from all the specialty cook book sites. I live in an area where this product (hlva) is not available and I do like it, so I did try to make it several times, each time a total failure. Yes, I did mak a candy with sesame tahini but thats about it, nowhere close to the taste and texture of the real Turkish or middle eastern halva . I did enjoy your post. Needless to say, I am scouting the Internet to find the right ingredients and mixture and method to make the confection. I have all of the ingredient, you provided some of the methods, now I need the exact proportions and I will try again. If you could help with the proportions and the mixing steps that would be great, or if any of your readers can provide additional information please pass it along. Can’t weight to try my hand at that.

  • good luck with it. i’m sorry i can’t help mainly because i never asked for the recipe but also because, as you can see from the videos, you need to churn, beat then knead the mixture and you may be able to do that at home but it’s unlikely that the result will be close to the commercial halva. i don’t know where you live but if in the US why don’t you order it online from kalustyans. it lasts a fairly long time and will arrive pretty intact given that it is quite solid. much easier than making it :). anyhow, am pleased i was able to help with information and hope that some readers can help even more 🙂

  • Thanks Anissa, I do live in Bali, Indonesia at the moment and halva is not available. I do have some commercial kitchen equipment which will do most if not all of the tasks involved in the process of churning the mixture, however if the proportions are not there, the results will be skewed as well. Anyhow, I’ll play a bit with it, if I succeed, I’ll get back with the details. Thanks again.

  • Good luck and do keep me posted. I’ll be v interested to know how it comes out. And make sure you use good tahini 🙂

  • Dear Anissa, thank you very much for your wonderful article! I ran into this page searching for halva, which I read about in an essay by a Japanese writer. She said she once had it when she lived in Czech in her childhood, and the taste never left her mind- she was searching for the real one for more than 40 years! She passed away few years ago, but I am sure she would have been excited with your article.
    Sad thing is that the halva shop is in Aleppo – I wish all of them are in safe in current situation…..

  • Oh, it is a shame she passed away. I am sure she would have been excited. I have to say I was when I went there. I had never seen halva being made before. and like you, i hope they are all safe. it is a terrible situation.

  • Anissa, amazing videos! Can I ask, how long did he knead it for before it was smooth enough to package?

  • not too long but at least 10-15 minutes 🙂

  • Anissa,
    I read your post with great pleasure. Its been many years that I am looking to a reliable Halva recipe, in vain. The web if packed with rubbish, like all those honey, egg-white etc. based halva. As much as I know, your post is the one and only that make use of saponaria (shirsh al=halwa) to make natef, and tahini. There no other Halva (of this kind. Excluding the indian/persian, etc.). All the rest are candies or fudges, by all means inferior to real crumbly halva.
    Very educational, entertaining and fun.
    Cheers from Israel.

  • Wow!!! No wonder I couldn’t make halva????
    I just want to accomplish this task. I want to learn to make clean non-corn syrup, non-Palm oil halva…..looks like I just have to go back to the Middle East!

  • Thank you for this very instructive video.

    i have brought Halva back to the UK and love it. However, people often ask how they should it use the halva. I tell them to eat a bit with their tea or to sprinkle some on their ice cream or to mix it with yogurt. What other uses are there? What other combinations are tasty? Thank you.

  • we often eat it with pita bread or by simply by itself

  • With a pita? Will try it; sounds promising. Thanks

  • Hi Anissa, I have tried to make my own halva but it isn’t setting. Do you maybe have any tips? Thanks!

  • I am afraid not Bonita!

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