15 April 2008

Halva, Halwa: Two Variations

Only looking to use the toilet in the middle of the Jaisalmer desert, I suddenly found myself in the middle of intense inter-village wedding preparations, with all community members manifesting extreme curiosity towards my ethnicity. In a nutshell, it ended in near-indigestion as the village people made us taste a variety of fresh dishes made for the ceremony... and then led us into some riotous dancing.

It was here that I tasted the freshest halva ever. Still steaming and hot, it was moist with ghee (Indian clarified butter). The sweet semolina, ground almonds and pistachios melted in my mouth. If heaven was a grain-nut dessert, this would be it, and it would be cooked just in this kitchen:

Anyway, weeks later, I found myself in the Mission District of San Francisco, face-to-face with a large block of something that claimed to be halwa (in India, the two words are used somewhat interchangeably, and various other peoples mess things up a bit more by saying halawa, helva, etc.). It looked like the Indian pista barfi, which I would describe as essentially a large gob of pastillas de leche.

Does it have milk? I asked. No, the shopkeeper said quite adamantly, it is halwa, and only has sesame seeds, sugar, pistachios, and some root that it was named after. So apparently, they put something called soap root into it ('erq al halaweh) to make it chewy. Was the root named after the snack or the snack after the root? I'm not so sure, but I speculate that he got it mixed up.

$0.90 got me a good size, and it tasted good, albeit on the too-sweet side. I appreciated the ground sesame. I thanked the cosmos that it wasn't one of those flossy halvas, which are very dry and make squeaky sounds against your teeth as you eat them.

I swear, this whole "we are all connected" thing is making itself more and more apparent to me as I wander about, stuff my face, and listen to people just talk. My fascination was ignited by reading the journal article "The History and Lore of Sesame in Southwest Asia" about four years ago, as well as Doreen Fernandez's Philippine-Mexico discussions in her book Tikim. This perspective makes travel extremely engaging, with your imagination running wild about stories of exchanges past-- from everyday interactions of common people to sudden changes brought by culinary equivalents of invasions.

Anyway, back to halva, halwa, whatever. So our protagonist found its way across the desert, completely transformed and indigenized, retaining almost only the original meaning of halaweh-- sweetness. Halva is, as it turns out, a general term for sweetmeat.

I prefer the moist Indian version to the sesame one, mainly because the latter made me really thirsty, next time I will have just an inch of it. I cut the SF purchase some slack though. I may have liked it equally, or more, if it had been served to me inside a sandstone hut along with crazy music and merriment-- or its contextual equivalent in another end of the desert. After all, our condiments, as Thoreau advised, are often right where they should be-- in the "condition of our senses". To more joy, wherever!

Valderi, Valdera!

Samiramis Imports
2990 Mission Street
(Between 25th & 26th Streets)
San Francisco, CA
(+1415) 824 6555
BART Station: 24th Street Mission

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