And as you pass, they offer free samples…

JStyle: Cleveland Jewish News

Shoppers at Jerusalem’s Machane Yehudah outdoor market  always seem to be  in a hurry.  They maneuver their shopping carts through its crowded  aisles at perilous speed, dodging black-frocked ultra-religious students shopping for Shabbat, soldiers savoring  quick felafels, school girls out on a lark, and housewives  purchasing  guavas, clementines, or sun-yellow peppers. They rush  past bakeries that feature   home baked  pitas  dripping  with olive oil and  hyssop. They bypass fishmongers hawking    glistening  sardines, salmon, and   bream.    But when the Halvah King  suddenly appears mid-aisle, with his  tray of  tastes of Paradise in hand, they stop in their tracks.  Who can resist Halvah?  Everyone pauses

 for a free sample.

 Halvah.  When did oil and sugar ever  melt so divinely on your tongue?     Halvah begins with the simplest of ingredients,  oil-rich sesame seeds, a Middle Eastern staple that  reputedly  harks back to pre-historic times,  and sweetening,  either honey or sugar.   Pinchas,  Jerusalem’s   Halvah  King should know.  Scion of a  Turkish family,  he, as a child,  enjoyed  watching  his grandfather making halvah at home. “My grandfather  made up small batches, ” he recalls.  “He  hand-ground the sesame seeds into  a thick paste called techina.  Then  he  added sugar,   tempering   it by hand,   until the paste’s consistency  was just right. Then he  either shaped  it in wash basins or cut it into blocks like these,” he adds,   indicating his impressive stock of goodies with a wave of his arm.

Many of those who sample  his wares pause  to  buy.  Amazingly, Pinchas sells hundreds of pounds of halvah a week.

  Halvah, after all, is, in its many forms, a staple of many Israeli households, enjoyed far  beyond the ubiquitous  Shabbat treat or  Turkish coffee sidekick. Housewives incorporate it into   shortbread and cheesecakes.  Halvah spread on bread  is  popular  among the younger set. And halvah cream- filled wafers make great noshes too.

  These days, with the growing accent on healthy living, Pinchas also sells a lot of sugarless halvah.  But, he stresses, all halvah is healthy.  Can he be serious?  According to nutritionists, there are far more calories in sesame seeds, which are nearly  100% oil, than in sugar.   Even without the sweetener, halvah weighs in at close to  500 calories per 3.5 ounces, a piece about the weight of an average  candy bar.    

That may seem a lot of heft for a little pleasure.  But as it turns out, the humble sesame seed does have a few   redeeming factors.  Sesame, besides packing a wallop of protein, also offers    small  amounts of   calcium,  manganese, copper,    magnesium, iron,  zinc and dietary fiber.  Sesame seeds also contain two unique substances,   sesamin and sesamolin, which have been shown   to lower cholesterol in  humans.  And last but not least,  sesame seeds are also reputed to  have an anti-aging effect.  Sounds good, tastes good, and good for you. Maybe Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she made halvah so irresistible. 

Halvah, very sweet, very nutty,  and slightly bitter,  can be as addictive as chocolate.  It comes in over 700 flavors, explains Pinchas, depending on what is added to the basic mix.  InTurkey, for example, there are even annual

halvah  contests, with participants striving to create exciting, new flavor combinations.   Pinchas’ himself markets   vanilla, marbled, French chocolate, cashew, coffee,  Syrian pistachio, almond, walnut, and fruited  halvahs.   But his personal favorite, he admits,  taking  a quick bite, is cocoa-pecan.