I didn't eat helva until I was in graduate school. Dave and I lived in Boston's south end around the corner from a tiny Lebabanese restaurant, where at the end of every meal (chunks of ice-cold cucumber napped with minty thick yogurt got us through a long hot summer) diners were presented with a thin slice of helva. Its airy-foamy texture and nutty flavor reminded me of the innards of a Butterfinger bar. I liked it, but not enough to pursue helva elsewhere.
A decade later we were in Istanbul, where helva is everywhere. At first I didn't know what those big bricks and wheels displayed in the windows of sweets shops -- some solid in color, others studded with nuts, still others with swirls of brown or black -- were. This was certainly not the helva I'd seen in boxes on the shelves of Middle Eastern grocery stores. But somehow I figured it out. We entered one of those shops and tasted -- my first experience of helva shaved from a piece that was probably made, at least in part, by hand was a revelation.
That word, revelation, is probably overused in food writing. But I can't think of a better way to describe how that first bite of "real" helva changed my view of a sweet that lots of folks these days probably take for granted. It wasn't one-note, it wasn't just sugary. It truly tasted like sesame seeds, oily in a good way, sweet yes, but with a good kick of bitterness following up on the sweet. I fell hard, and Dave and I bought a kilo to take back to Shanghai. On the long flight home our helva hunk leaked oil through its wrapper, through its plastic bag and on to my clothes. But we began a nightly ritual of stingily shearing slivers from our helva hunk after dinner. And soon I couldn't have cared less about the demise of my favorite sweater.
Last summer I found my dream helva in a tiny, absolutely unassuming shopfront near the city wall in Diyarbakir's historic center. Dave and I had passed it by several times, noting the tawny corpulent cakes displayed in its windows. Once again, we were looking at helva without knowing it was helva (but we should have, given the bulging bags of tahini displayed alongside the cakes). Finally curiosity got the best of us. Inside we found a pristine marble counter and Hassan, the third generation of his family to work at the shop, who rattled off the short menu: susamli helva (sesame helva), mayali helva ("yeasted" helva) and mayasiz helva (un-"yeasted" helva).
We ordered a mixed plate, so to speak, and savored our helva at a table as Hassan filled orders for half a kilo, two kilos, five kilos of helva to go. His family's tahini, with which they make their helva, is made in Sanliurfa from imported sesame seeds
The mayasiz helva cut like butter and boasted the dense texture of fudge (it's pictured above, with the sesame helva) while the sesame helva, cloaked in a layer of white sesame seeds, was like nougat: chewy and sticky, delicious but difficult to dislodge from my molars. My favorite was the mayali helva -- super light, layered on the tongue, almost effervescent in the way it dissolved on my tongue without so much as a single chew. I could have eaten half a kilo in one sitting (but restrained myself). All three had the most tremendous flavor, bold and round and nutty with a dose of bitterness and a sweetness so subtle that it was the last note my palate registered.
(By the way, "yeasted" here most likely means that the helva is made with egg whites or maybe Gypsophila, a root that is boiled in water to make a liquid that when beaten resembles egg whites.)
We returned to this shop -- whose name I've neglected twice now to note -- again this last April. In the interim I'd had the opportunity to taste tahini around the southeast, where tahini is produced and figures in many local dishes. (At least out east, Turkish cuisines are hyper local; you won't find tahini in Black Sea pantries.) None have come close in either texture or flavor to the helva made by Hassan's family.
Helva -- the Turkish word is derived from the Arabic "halwa" (sweet or dessert) -- assumes many forms in Turkey. There is the nut and sesame-based helva as you commonly find sold at Istanbul sweets shops. There is kagit helvasi (paper helva), layered wafer disks that you might see sold on Istanbul ferries. There is keten helva ("linen helva" -- also known as pismaniye, pesmek, tel helvasi and a number of other terms), a cotton candy-reminscent sweet of flour, butter and sugar that's made in a laborious three-step process (described in detail in Mary Isin's Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts, an indispensible reference for anyone interested in the history of sweets in Turkey). And there are a whole host of homemade helva too, made with flour, starch, semolina or fine bulgur,and butter, cheese and/or milk.
If you tell a Turkish person that you love helva he or she is likely to respond with "Which helva?" For me there's only one answer: Any helva from Hassan's shop in Diyarbakir.
On the south side of Inonu Caddesi near the SV Business Hotel, a little west of Gazi Caddesi.