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.