How to Make Halwa, a Traditional Middle Eastern Treat
It's surprisingly simple to make at home.
At the Al Jamal Sweet shop in Doha, Qatar, large vats of thick, amber liquids are stirred slowly as hungry locals peer through the windows at the confections being prepared. The shop, which has been tucked in the center of the city’s Souq Waqif—an expansive marketplace where locals and tourists come to eat, shop, and people watch—for a quarter of a decade, specializes in one traditional sugary treat: Halwa.
Halwa—also known as Halva, Chalwah, Helva, and many other names across the world—is a time-honored tradition in Doha, the country’s capital which just played host to the Qatar International Food Festival, and a number of surrounding Middle Eastern nations. Though Al Jamal also offers other snacks and confections, their Halwa, made fresh daily and flavored with the likes of saffron, chocolate, and rose water, is what draws in the hungry crowds.
This classic dessert, which comes in two main varieties—clear and gelatinous or crumbly and tahini-laced—is a sugar-based confection meant to be sliced and shared, and is prepared with slight variations in different cultures around the globe. Though the exact origin of this prolific treat is unknown, its variety of names are all derived from ‘Halwa,’ the Arabic word for a sweet confection.
To prepare the large quantities required to satisfy the demand from locals and visitors daily, Al Jamal’s candy makers begin by filling a large, heated metal basin with water and sugar, cooking it down to a thick, syrupy consistency in a process that takes a few hours. Then a mixture of rice starch, butter, and flavorings are added to the batch before cooking for another stretch of time.
Once the mixture is ready, it is poured out into individual containers and decorated with a variety of dried fruits and nuts. The resulting confection is gelatinous in texture and slightly transparent, with a striking color ranging from a deep amber to a rich, ruby red depending on the flavor.
The shop’s other big seller is Rahash, a Tahini-based Halwa with a more creamy, toffee-like consistency. Each day, Al Jamal prepares 100 kilograms (over 200 pounds) of Halwa and Rahash, and sells out completely by closing time.
Though the small shop has been in business for 25 years, and is known among locals as the go-to spot for Halwa in the city, with an increased international spotlight on Qatar—and the forthcoming 2022 World Cup—the locally beloved spot has experienced a boom in international visitors looking to get a taste of this traditional treat.
While seemingly exotic, Halwa is surprisingly simple to create in your own kitchen. The first step is to create a syrup by combining 2 1/2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of white sugar in a saucepan and boiling the mixture until thick, about 5 minutes. In a separate pan, combine 2 tablespoons of melted butter with 1/2 cup of rice flour and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes or until golden. Then, whisk the syrup into the flour mixture and simmer over low for about 10 minutes, or until thick. After 5 minutes, add your chosen flavors, like cardamom, rose water, or saffron. Pour the completed mixture into individual bowls or containers, garnish with dried nuts, and allow to cool before digging in.
To create your own Tahini Halwa—or Rahash—begin with 2 cups of honey heated in a saucepan over medium heat until softened. Then, fold in 2 cups of warmed Tahini (sesame paste), 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and pistachios if desired. Pour the mixture into an oiled loaf pan and allow to cool completely before slicing and serving.
For another variation of this Middle Eastern treat, try your hand at this recipe for Saffron and Carrot Halvah, a more pudding-like mixture. Whichever variety you choose, you’ll find yourself enjoying the striking flavors of a far-away souq from your own kitchen.