Commonly enjoyed as a snack or meal not only in Turkey, but also in the Middle East, Central Asia, and India, helva is the name given to a varied range of sweet desserts and confections.
By Aylin Öney Tan
Turkish helva refers to a variety of sweets which differ based on ingredients and the level of complication during preparation. Some types can easily be made at home, but there are also some that require special skills and equipment that can only be made by specialized helva makers. The base ingredients are semolina, flour or starch, butter, ghee, or sesame paste as fat, all mixed with sugar, nuts, and various flavorings.
The ubiquitous, sweet delight rich in sesame is perhaps the best known variety in the world. Known in Turkish as tahin helva, or tahini halva globally, it often comes in big rectangular blocks displayed in shop windows, sold in thick slices or cut into smaller blocks according to a customer’s preference. Sometimes it serves as a quick nourishing snack: a thin slice tucked into fresh bread, still warm out of the oven, makes a satisfactory feast. It can easily be said that it is a staple sweet found almost everywhere in Turkey, enjoyed by all, and perhaps the truly egalitarian sweet of the country.
Sweetness in the making
Tahin helva comes in three varieties: plain, with cacao streaks, or with pistachios. First, the sugar syrup is prepared with 47% sugar and water. When the sugar is melted, a pinch of citric acid crystals (known as lemon salt) are added and the syrup is continuously stirred while it is boiled to reach the right consistency.
Then, the magical ingredient is added to the warm syrup. It is an extract of a plant called çöven, the root of a plant of the Gypsophila genus, which is also known as the halva root. The plant has a foam-making ability and turns the syrup to brilliant white. Once the extract is added, the syrup is stirred vigorously to create the shiny white effect. Then, tahini is put to a semi-spherical copper container. If cacao or pistachios are to be added, they are added at this stage.
According to the Turkish Standards Institute, the tahini content cannot be lower than 52%, but for more flavor, good artisanal helva makers use around 58-60%. The whitened sugar syrup, now resembling a liquid marshmallow, is added to the tahini and mixed with a wooden paddle in a folding fashion. This process creates long threads of syrup, all covered with a coating of tahini, and it is rightfully called “tellendirme,” or puffing up, creating an almost fibrous mass. Now, the helva is almost ready. The mass is divided into portions of equal weight and pressed into rectangular molds to rest for at least a day to set. A good helva has to have a chalky, flaky, crumbly texture with the right balance of sweetness and fatty tahini.
Needless to say, the quality of sesame is of utmost importance. Locally grown Turkish sesame is the best quality, although many resort to imported African sesame, which is still superior to the Indian sesame that dominates the market. The best regionally famous helva makers come from areas where sesame grows locally. The helva of Elmalı and Korkuteli in Antalya province is famous, where sesame is grown abundantly, and especially so in Finike. Likewise, the helva of Tarsus is equally famous, where tahini seems to run in the blood of the locals.
Another factor for a good quality helva is of course artisanal expertise. Nothing beats the flaky sensation of a helva beaten or folded with wooden paddles, with the helva master judging the right point when the helva reaches the ideal texture. Machine made helva just misses the point, resulting in a homogeneous mass, bereft of a skilled craftsman’s hands.
One very important aspect of tahin helva often remains unnoticed. As it is based on sesame paste and makes no use of butter or any other animal fat or eggs, it is suitable for a vegan diet. This made tahin helva indispensable for Orthodox and Gregorian Christians, as they were not allowed to eat meat and dairy products during fast days and Lent. For Christians with a sweet tooth in this geography, where most desserts are milk-based puddings, butter-rich desserts, or egg containing baked goods, a slice of this sesame paste based sweet is a blessing.
Although vegans might easily think that tahin helva has whipped egg whites due to its whitish color and texture, this quality is achieved by the extract of çöven, which has saponification properties. The tahini acts as the fat provider, which compensates for the lack of butter.
Mini helva cigarette börek
When you have some helva at home, no matter how hard you try to have neat slices, you’ll have some broken, crumbly bits and pieces. Here is one way to make use of them:
Take a sheet of yufka (phyllo). Cut it into small triangles with a pizza-cutter or sharp knife. . Place a teaspoon of helva crumbles onto the wide end in a thin line near the bottom edge. Fold in sides to trap the filling inside, to prevent oozing out when fried, and roll the pastry up. Wet the tip of the yufka sheet with a little water to seal it. Roll several of these tiny, cigarette shaped börek in this fashion. Heat about an inch of frying oil in a pan. When sizzling hot, add the rolls to the pan, turning occasionally with tongs or a fork so that every side takes an even, golden color. When all sides are beautifully fried, take the börek out of the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve while still warm. You may add a bit of cinnamon to the powdered sugar for an extra depth of flavor. Enjoy!
The mystery ingredient of helva
One of the very few accounts of Gypsophila in Turkey is from Sir Charles Fellows, a British archaeologist and explorer, known for his numerous expeditions throughout the former Ottoman Empire. In 1838, from his base in Izmir (formerly Smyrna), Fellows began traveling throughout Asia Minor, discovering many ancient sites including Xanthos, previously unknown in the western world. His accounts, published in 1839 under the title A Journal Written During an Excursion in Asia Minor, attracted the interest of British Museum authorities and with a firman obtained from the Sultan, he shipped several antique monuments to England to adorn the halls of the British Museum. He continued to travel extensively in Lycia, publishing his observations in An Account of Discoveries in Lycia, Being a Journal Kept During a Second Excursion in Asia Minor (London, 1841).
His observation of camel-loads of helva root near the town of Elmalı in southwestern Turkey, a small town high up in the Taurus Mountains, is quite interesting. Apparently, the helva root was foraged in Taurus forests, which should come as no surprise, as Elmalı is still renowned for its perfect helva. “I observe camels loaded with roots, resembling very fine horse-radish (the Silene): this is found plentifully here, and used in making a sweetmeat; but it is principally obtained as a substitute for soap, and used in the raw state,” he wrote.
Best places to buy helva
- Established in 1875, Tanınmış Helvacı is the best place for met and tahini helva. Go to its store in Eskişehir early because the products will be sold out before late afternoon. Değirmen Sokak, Odunpazarı/Eskişehir
- Another established helva maker of Turkey is Tıflıpaşa Helva in Balıkesir. The family-run brand has been producing helva with the same traditional methods since 1775. 494. Sk. No:12/C, Edremit/Balıkesir