The word halva entered the English language between 1840 and 1850 from the Romans. Yiddish: חלווה, romanised: halva, which came from the Turkish: helva, itself ultimately derived from the Arabic: حلوى, romanised: ḥalwá, a sweet confection. The root in Arabic: حلو, romanised: ḥelw, means "sweet".
Wheat Halwa of Salem
Most types of halva are relatively dense confections sweetened with sugar or honey. Their textures, however, vary. For example, semolina-based halva is gelatinous and translucent, while sesame-based halva is drier and more crumbly.
Flour based halva is made by frying flour (such as semolina) in oil, mixing it into a roux, and then cooking it with a sugary syrup.
Turkish un helvası, a flour-based halva
This variety of halva is usually made with wheat semolina, sugar or honey, and butter or vegetable oil. Raisins, dates, other dried fruits, or nuts such as almonds or walnuts are often added to semolina halva. The halva is very sweet, with a gelatinous texture similar to polenta; the added butter gives it a rich mouthfeel.
In India, halva recipes use flour, melted butter or ghee, sugar and optionally acacia gum (gum arabic). It comes in various colors like orange, brown, green and white; in a translucent appearance studded with raisins, cashew nuts, pistachios, almonds, etc. Technically- the term halva is used in native recipes throughout India. A prominent South Indian version of halva (or alvaa in Tamil) is from Tirunelveli, a city in the state of Tamil Nadu. Another semolina preparation widely enjoyed throughout South India called kesari or kesari-bath originates from the state of Karnataka.
Alternative vegetable-based halva recipes popular in India and Pakistan use beetroots, potatoes, yams, and most commonly carrots (for gajar halwa), mung beans (for moong dal halwa), or bottle gourds (for doodi halwa) instead of semolina. Prepared with condensed milk and ghee, without semolina to bind it together, the end result has a moist, yet flaky, texture when freshly prepared. Other examples include the famous Agra Petha- easily available at Taj Mahal, Agra.
Cornstarch-gelatinous halva is popular in Greece and has many variations.
Rice flour halva
This rice flour and coconut milk halva is common fare on the streets of Zanzibar.
Tahini-based halva with pistachios
This type of halva is made by grinding oily seeds, such as sesame or sunflower seeds, to a paste, and then mixing with hot sugar syrup cooked to hard-crack stage. This type is popular in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Sesame halva is popular in the Balkans, Poland, Middle East, and other areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The primary ingredients in this confection are sesame butter or paste (tahini), and sugar, glucose or honey. A version of sesame halva, called sesame crumble candy (芝麻酥糖) in China uses ground sesame and sugar, cooked to the hard ball stage because it is made crispier than other halvas.
Sunflower halva is popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is made of roasted ground sunflower seeds instead of sesame. It may include other ingredients, such as nuts, cocoa powder, or vanilla.
Pişmaniye (Turkish) or floss halva is a traditional sweet, prepared in Kocaeli, Turkey, made by flossing thin strands of halva into a light confection. Made primarily of wheat flour and sugar, the strands are continuously wrapped into a ball shape and then compressed. The result is a halva with a light consistency, similar to cotton candy. Floss halva can be found in regular and pistachio flavors, and there are brands with halal or kosher certifications.
A similar pistachio-based version of floss halva is popular in North India. It tends to be slightly denser and is often referred to as patisa or sohan papdi. In Chinese cuisine, a floss-like candy similar to pismaniye or pashmak halva, known as dragon beard candy, is eaten as a snack or dessert.
A raw version of halva also has become popular among proponents of raw food diets. In this version, a mixture of raw sesame tahini, raw almonds, raw agave nectar and salt are blended together and frozen to firm.