Craving a Wholesome Sweet? Try Halvah, the Ancient Candy

My mother used to buy halvah bars when I was young, believing it safe to keep the adult-tasting treats in the refrigerator–that was until I discovered just how delicious they were. After growing up and turning vegan, I rediscovered the wholesome snack.

Halvah of all varieties has been cherished all over the world for at least 3000 years, and is considered “food of the gods” by some accounts. The 2 main types are flour-based and nut-butter based. This sesame-based recipe is my favorite because it contains no animal products or sugar, instead using dates for sweetener. Note that many store bought halvah bars contain dairy products and eggs, so always check labels carefully.

I ground the sesame seeds into tahini without using any added oil, as per the original recipe. The food processor got very warm, and you may need to let it rest a while as you go. Unless you have a high-speed blender, you may prefer to purchase tahini instead of making it from scratch.

The recipe is quite flexible. You can adjust the number of dates you use depending on how sweet you like it (I used about 10 dates per 250g of sesame seeds), as well as stir in any kind of nuts and dried fruits you like. I added some tart dried cherries and vanilla syrup to a recent batch, and it came out tasting like a cherry pie!

While halvah is more nutritious than the typical candy bar, be aware it is far from low-calorie. According to the recipe’s author, it has 528 calories per 100g, and 70 percent of calories from fat. Portion control (and sharing) is advised, or you may devour the whole batch (1600 calories) before you know it.

Yet another reason to avoid added oils

Recently, in the course of looking for recipes using the natural sweetener and wonder food lucuma, I discovered one for butterscotch tahini bars containing tahini and coconut oil, a popular ingredient in raw vegan diets. While the bars admittedly tasted awesome by everyone’s account, the confection became liquid at room temperature (embarrassing to discover after bringing to friends), providing a visual reminder that extracted plant oils are no better than animal fats.

In fact, coconut oil is hazardous to your health, even worse than lard, according to Dr. Matt Lederman, a board-certified internist who specializes in nutrition and lifestyle medicine.

Coconut oil is devoid of vitamins, minerals, and most other nutrients. It is pure fat, and worse than that, it’s over 90% saturated fat. The same saturated fat that raises our cholesterol, clogs our arteries, and contributes to our heart attacks.

In the 1980s, the American Heart Associated recognized coconut oil’s high saturated fat content as being overall destructive to heart health, as well as promoting heart damage and disease. As a result, they continued to advise the reduction of all saturated fats, including coconut oil, to less than 7% of dietary calories.

This opinion is shared by the World Health Organization and the FDA, both recommending decreasing intake of saturated fats, because the reduction of saturated fat, including coconut oil, has been shown to benefit our overall health.

This post is also available in: Japanese

4 thoughts on “Craving a Wholesome Sweet? Try Halvah, the Ancient Candy

  1. william Post author

    I used to believe coconut oil was beneficial for health. However, I was convinced otherwise by Dr. Lederman’s lecture for eCornell, and appreciate hearing other informed opinions on the subject. Lederman says: “It is true that coconut oil contains some medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are less readily absorbed compared to longer-chain fatty acids. And these MCFAs have been shown to have less of an effect on LDL, bad cholesterol. But is that not similar to saying that burning your hand with a 300-degree flame has less effect on your skin than burning your hand with a 400-degree flame? Oil and fat are oil and fat.
    That being said, I have read that MCFAs are absorbed directly into the liver and as a result, have a potential in weight loss. Even if true—this was only theoretical in the study—this reductionist view misses the point that people don’t eat MCFAs. Rather, they eat coconut oil, and half the saturated fat in coconut oil is not MCFAs. At over 90% saturated fat, taking away the portion of MCFAs in coconut oil—which still requires us to make the huge leap of an assumption that MCFAs are all good and can be negated—then you are still left with 45% of the saturated fat that is pure badness. So even subtracting all of the theoretical goodness of MCFAs from the total saturated fat content, coconut oil is still worse than lard, which is only 43% saturated fat. And we all know that lard is not a health food.
    Yes, it is true that some of these MCFAs, like loric and capric acid, have been shown to have antifungal and antiviral properties, but we don’t eat food because of their antimicrobial properties. We eat foods to provide healthy fuels, which as a result strengthen our immune systems, which then fight microbes. Now food doesn’t fight infection; rather, our immune system does. With that argument we could recommend alcohol as a health food because alcohol kills some microbes.
    More importantly, we shouldn’t approve of a food just because one part of it has a specific property we like. This reductionist view is sort of like saying cigarettes are great because they have found some antioxidants in the tobacco. The take-home message is that the whole food serves no purpose and does pose a serious risk. There are no omega 3 fats, the essential fats people actually need, in coconut oil. And furthermore, if people on a no-added oil, low-fat, plant-based diet added coconut oil to their diet, the fat load on their vessels will cause serious damage. Inflammation and blood vessel flow decrease when exposed to any fat, including coconut oil.

  2. Jim Dunlop

    Will,

    That is excellent.

    (From the original recipe):

    Ingredients:

    250 g of whole raw sesame seeds
    50 g dates , chopped finely
    1 teaspoon of natural vanilla extract

    Just what I like to see. Things that I can obtain readily from any supermarket. As you well know, here in the Land of the Rising Sun, many of the “standard” Vegan ingredients are only a pipe dream. It’s nice to be able to make tasty dishes using common ingredients rather than “exotic” ones.

    While on the topic of deserts, last night I made a nice, tasty, simple one out of the McDougall Cookbook (which I got for my Kindle)… I made the Spanish Rice (same book) for supper, and had a leftover cup of rice, so it worked out perfectly.

    ————

    Rice Pudding

    1 cup cooked brown rice
    1/4 cup soy milk
    1/4 fresh or dried chopped fruit
    2 tsp raw sugar
    1/2 tsp vanilla

    Combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Stir. Let stand until the soy milk is absorbed. Serve warm or cold.

    ————-

    I made it with a fresh banana, then topped it with a sprinkle of cinnamon too. The wife liked it, so I shall be making it again at some point.

    Can’t wait to try making the halvah though!

    JD

  3. william Post author

    Halvah couldn’t get much easier or delicious. No better way to consume any sesame seeds and dates in your pantry (or give you an excuse to buy some more).
    I had been looking at making the same rice pudding recipe myself. Another simple and healthful dessert (or breakfast)!

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