In non-Persian communities, people are often quite familiar with a sesame seed–based “halva” popularized by the Ottoman Turks, but the confection has its roots in Persia, where the earliest versions may have been made from mashed dates and milk.
Present-day Persian halwah (which rarely employs sesame seeds except as a decoration) is a constant at Persian funerals and memorial services, where it’s offered to family members and friends of the deceased as well as to strangers. Dehestani says that if a plate of halwah is present, a Persian person will always take a spoonful and say “God bless him” or “God bless her” because they know it was made in memory of someone who has passed. To make sharing easy, halwah might be offered in little cups, spooned onto slices of bread, or sandwiched between thin wafer cookies.
While halwah is traditional at memorials, people also enjoy it at other times. In fact, says Dehestani, “Pregnant women often crave halwah. They cleverly ask for it by saying ‘I think the baby wants some.’”
This sweet is not on Syma’s menu. Persian halwah is made at home, and making it is always a group project. The cook toasts wheat flour and combines it with butter, sugar, saffron water, and rose water to make a warm paste, which Dehestani describes as looking like mud. As the mud is spread on plates as thin cakes, a group gathers around to decorate them quickly while the paste is still warm. The process invites family collaboration (or competition), and the opportunities for creative expression are endless.