There is no fashion-related reason to write about halvah right now. The last halvah trend, which focused mainly on desserts clumsily decorated with threads of the stuff, is long past, but left behind an awareness of this natural, tasty sweet just waiting to be truly discovered.
In the seventh century, the word halvah (from the Arabic for "sweet") referred to a date paste. Later on, semolina, which is made from wheat, became the main ingredient in halvah, and with its spread to various regions in the Near and Far East, sesame and other grains and seeds began to be used as a base for halvah.
Arabs eat halvah not just for dessert, but also as an energy snack at breakfast or a filling for pita. In the Acre market, you can still find homemade halvah straight from the family kitchen, and nothing can beat the flavor of the freshly-made product. It's practically impossible these days to get to the casbah in Nablus, the regional halvah capital, where halvah is still made by hand at home. But at least the Nablus products, like those of the Dove (Hayonah) company, still find their way to the Israeli market. From the souk in East Jerusalem, where the products of nearby villages and towns have found their way for centuries, comes good string halvah. And in the Wadi Ara and Nazareth areas, more and more small family businesses are trying to translate the growing interest in Arab cuisine in recent years into a greater awareness of sesame-based foods.
Those who explored King Tut's tomb discovered 30 cases full of dried plants and the remnants of foods and treats that were favorites of the young Egyptian monarch. These cases, says the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Food, were buried deep in the archives of the Royal Botanical Gardens in England for many years. Not until the 1980s was a lucky English student permitted to investigate their contents, among which he found sesame - making this one of the earliest findings of this seed in the region.
The sesame seeds at the Nazareth Al-Arz tehina factory come from Himora in Ethiopia, a mountainous area called "the roof of Africa," where fine, fatty specimens of this seed grow in abundance. At the small family-run business in Nazareth, which adheres to a strenuous, traditional hand-production method, the seeds go on another journey. They are carefully sorted, rinsed in whirlpool baths, peeled, roasted in huge ovens, strained and finely ground. At the end of this meticulous, 10-stage process, a fount of raw tehina emerges, dispersing a warm, fragrant cloud throughout the factory. They make halvah here, too, of course, composed of tehina and a thick sugar syrup. And during Ramadan, bits of orange, raisins and caramelized fruits are added.
Al-Arz Tehina and Halvah, Nazareth, can also be purchased in stores in the center of the country; www.alarz.co.il (Hebrew only)
Only two people work on the tehina production line in the huge hall of the Baraka factory in the village of Arara. Ibrahim, who has tehina flowing in his veins, has managed to industrialize the process of producing paste from sesame seeds, while maintaining the traditional manufacturing principles. In the halvah production room next door, on the other hand, dozens of Oompah Loompah-type workers scurry about with funny-looking shower caps on their heads. They pour the sugar and glucose mixture from enormous cooking pots into a flow of hot tehina, and mix the paste by hand, with rhythmic motions, into halvah. This is skilled teamwork, with one worker adding cocoa powder, coffee beans or vanilla essence to the paste, another cutting hunks of halvah into thin slices, and another pouring the mixture into molds.
Even Ibrahim, who lived in Nablus for two years to learn to make tehina, hasn't been able to completely industrialize the process of making halvah from tehina. The halvah here is quite good, and certainly can compete with its local and imported sisters, especially what is known here as shami halvah, which has a high tehina-to-sugar ratio.
This family business, founded in the 1980s in Umm al-Fahm in one small room with heavy millstones to crush the sesame seeds, has since grown many branches: dozens of tehina and halvah products manufactured under different labels (Baraka and Bustan), as well as a salads factory, a KFC franchise and perhaps more to come.
But the vision is bigger than that - even bigger than the goal of making tehina the mayonnaise of the Middle East. At Baraka, they dream of becoming the leading Arab food company in Israel. The R&D department is busy developing new products. If Israeli cuisine has so fondly adopted hummus and tehina, then why shouldn't it embrace dozens of other items, like baklava and lentil soup.
Meanwhile, 70 workers make their living from this tehina factory, a huge number in a place with a high unemployment rate, where most residents have to seek work in distant locations. The factory's middle-level employees, the food and industrial engineers, are mostly Jews. It's one of those complicated chicken-and-egg stories in which it is not certain which came first - the Jewish company's inability to find Arab college graduates to hire, or a lack of desire on the part of Arab society to pursue these professions.
Baraka, Arara village; available in supermarkets
In the 1940s, Yomtov Levy's delicatessen was located on a street in Istanbul, the city of his birth. In the late 1960s, he opened a small deli in the Levinsky Market in South Tel Aviv. His son and daughter-in-law, who inherited his spot behind steep mounds of olives and tins of pickled anchovies, have already handed the job of getting up early in the morning for the deli to the third generation. But Grandpa Yomtov, now 85, still comes in every day for at least three hours to help out the grandkids, Yomi and Eitan.
Yomi Levy, who was named for his grandfather, is just 24, but has already completed four years of study at the Tadmor Culinary Institute; he has spent almost every day of his life in the family business. He prepares all the fresh salads himself, in a professional kitchen he built at home. That is also where the creamy marzipan and the tasty jams are prepared according to Grandma's special recipes. The cookies - halvah, almond and Turkish-style kadayif - are made by Yomi's mother, who vehemently protested when the younger generation tried to bring in trendy mini-pastries instead.
The connection with Koska, a long-established Turkish family halvah and sweets firm that is also in the hands of the third generation, began a few decades ago. The Levy family imports, direct from Istanbul, large loaves of good, dry sesame halvah - the kind that barely sticks to your teeth - dotted with walnuts, pistachios or almonds and adorned with little red Turkish flags. Yomi and Eitan also tried for a time to import the semolina halvah, but it didn't go over that well with local customers. Their most recent innovation, imported halvah made from sesame seeds, has been quite a success: The dark loaves speckled with raisins, almonds and blueberries sold out quickly. Soon they will have more of them available, along with an especially dark-colored halvah and another type of delicate Turkish halvah.
Yom Tov Deli, 43 Levinsky Street, Tel Aviv, 03-6813730
Here in the Carmel Market, in a small stall that sells pork, the Tiv Ta'am supermarket chain essentially began. Despite its recent ups and downs, the chain deserves much of the credit for expanding the non-kosher Israeli culinary repertoire. The Carmel Market branch was for a long time a private franchise, and last year it cut all ties with the chain. At the butcher shop, owned by Ophir Zemah and other kibbutzniks from Yifat who seem somehow born for this market, you can buy good fresh meat, some of which goes to the kitchens of famous restaurants in Tel Aviv. You will also find alcoholic beverages at reasonable prices, Russian sweets in glittery packages, and on the counter there is always a big tray of bricks of sunflower halvah from Ukraine. Their grayish-brown color isn't particularly appealing, but the Russian clientele is very fond of their terrific taste.
Ma'adanei Hacarmel, 50 Hacarmel Street, Tel Aviv, 03-5100895