by Joan Peterson
This article first appeared in the Winter 2009 quarterly newsletter--Repast--published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor.
Halvah (helva) is the oldest type of dessert in Turkish cuisine writes noted Turkish culinary expert, Nevin Hal]c], in her book Turkish Cookery; the earliest known recipe for halvah dates to the 11th century. The name is derived from the Arabic root hulw, or halwa, meaning sweet, and describes a large family of confections in the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the Balkans.
Halvah has three basic ingredients: a starch, a fat and a sweetener. It most commonly is made with semolina, but several other distinct versions of halvah exist. To prepare this sweet, semolina (or equivalent) typically is toasted or fried while constantly stirring it with a wooden spoon, sometimes together with butter, until golden brown. Liquid, scalded milk for example, is then mixed in, along with sugar or reduced grape juice (pekmez) and melted butter. Frequently almonds, pine nuts or pistachios are added for flavor.
The writings of the Islamic mystics, the Sufis, provided considerable insight into the nature of Turkish cuisine in the 13th century. One of the most renowned mystics and poets was Mevlânâ Celâleddin Rûmî, founder of the Mevlevî (whirling dervish) order. Rûmî’s poems record the importance of food in the life of the religious order and contain many references to the foodstuffs available in Selçuk Anatolia, including halvah. The language of food typically was symbolic; allusions to food signified spiritual sustenance, and its processing the purification of the soul. Besides its frequent mention in Sufi literary works, halvah also became an important part of the Sufi religious ceremony. Considered a most delectable mortal food, halvah was equated with the sweetness of spiritual rapture and was eaten at the end of the ritual where a spiritual merging with the divine was sought by repeated invocation of a holy chant.
Halvah’s importance grew during the Ottoman period. The fragmentation of the Selçuk empire in Anatolia paved the way for independent Turkish bands to carve up the former Selçuk state into smaller, rival fiefdoms. The Ottomans swept away all challengers over a period of about two centuries and in 1453 they snatched the coveted prize of Constantinople (now Istanbul) from the Byzantines and added it to the sultanate. Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror wasted little time erecting the splendid Topkapâ Palace in Istanbul shortly after he took over the city. Judging from the huge kitchen it housed, topped with four large domes, it was apparent that culinary arts played a major role in daily affairs. In fact, Turkish cuisine under the tutelage of the Ottoman sultans flourished at the hands of many skilled cooks anxious to please them and gain promotion. These cooks not only had their culinary heritage to draw upon, but had access to just about every existing ingredient in the vast empire of the Ottomans. These exotic foodstuffs and spices became a part of an ever growing repertoire of dishes that appeared in the sumptuous, multiple-course meals presented to the sultans.
All the while, the size and complexity of the kitchen staff increased to feed the growing number of people living on the palace grounds. At the end of the 16th century, according to the imperial records, a staff of 200 live-in cooks toiled in the kitchen. In a mere 50 years, this number rose to about 1,400. They fed up to 10,000 people in a single day, including those meals destined for diners outside the palace as a token of the sultan’s favor. To accommodate this flurry of culinary activity, the kitchen was enlarged during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–1566). The imperial architect, Sinan, added the 6-domed Has Mutfak and Helvahâne (literally, the “house of halvah”). Sweets, especially halvah, fruit conserves, syrups and macun, jelly-like pastes claimed to have healing effects, were made in the Helvahâne.
Some years later, the kitchen underwent a doubling in size with the addition of 10 more sections. The organization required for a culinary operation of this size to run smoothly was staggering. Every imaginable food category had not one, but an entire staff of cooks devoted to the art of preparing and perfecting it. For halvah, six versions were made, each requiring a chef and a hundred apprentices. All food personnel were part of a complex infrastructure. At the top was the matbah emini, the trustee of the royal kitchens. The hierarchy also included a prodigious administrative staff that oversaw the purchase, storage, preparation and serving of tons of foodstuffs arriving at the palace kitchen each year.
By royal decree of Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror, all civilian and military people wore outer garments and turbans of a specific style and color to facilitate recognition of their vocation and position within the hierarchy on sight. The culinary staff of the palace was not immune to this edict, and a rich variety of garments and styles characterized these jobs.
The abundance of food and the quality of dining outside the palace grounds was in the hands of special guilds, about 43 of them, which regulated the cost and quality of the food. At the hub of this effort was the indoor Egyptian Market, still in existence today, which housed a vast selection of foodstuffs in addition to spices and herbs, and provided for the whole city of Istanbul.
The trade guilds were instrumental in establishing the important social gatherings called helva sohbeti (halvah conversations). Family and friends would get together during the winter months for conversation, games and dining. At the end of the evening, after the meal was finished, halvah would be served, which explains why the name became associated with these events. Usually those gathered would eat either veteran’s halvah (gaziler helvas]) made with flour and flavored with almonds, semolina halvah (irmik helvas]) or keten helvas] (floss halvah), whose texture is similar to cotton candy. Guests worked together to make the cotton candy, pulling and kneading the cooked syrup until it acquired a floss-like consistency. To cut its sweetness, this halvah was eaten with pickles! The tradition of the helva sohbeti all but ended in the nineteenth century when the trade guilds went out of existence.
Halvah has long been associated with commemorative occasions, both happy and sorrowful, and this tradition still remains strong in Turkish culture. It is served wherever people gather to recognize births, circumcisions and weddings, among others, and to mourn deaths. This sweet is also an important component of religious ceremonies and feast days.
In Turkey, circumcision is a significant event that traditionally occurs when boys are between five and seven years old. Even today celebrations of this ritual include entertainment and a feast. Those for the Ottoman princes were characterized by extravagance and profusion. A vast number of guests were invited to the festivities, which went on for days, even weeks. The enormity of a royal circumcision party from a food perspective can be appreciated from the palace kitchen records of the celebration in 1539 for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s sons, Cihangir and Bayezid, which provided posterity a rarely so detailed description of the menu for such a grandiose event. According to the register, twenty tables—each with twenty-seven serving dishes, six pans and fourteen trays—were necessary to showcase just the sweets. Eight varieties of halvah were named among the confections: halvah with nuts (f]st]k helvas]), two almond halvahs presumably made with whole nuts (badem helvas] and levzîne helva), an almond halvah made with crushed nuts (kirma badem helvas]), cotton candy-like halvah (pe}mine; known today as pi}maniye), halvah flavored with saffron (sar] helva), wheat-flour halvah possibly flavored with rose water and cinnamon (residiye) and red halvah (k]z]l helva). The Sultan’s largesse for a royal circumcision commemoration extended far beyond his family and guests. As a part of the celebration, up to ten thousand boys from poor families were circumcised and given gifts of food and clothing.
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