Halva in the Middle Kingdom: A Touch of Chinese Sophistication
It goes by many names – halva, halawa, marzipan, huasheng sutang. For something that gets around so much, halva’s not much to look at. Unremarkable squares. What makes the sweet memorable, however, is the texture: it teaches the mouth that sugar can be delicious even in a sandy form.
Like most foods with legs, halva is not only a name changer, but a shapeshifter. In the Mediterranean, it’s made with semolina and has a pudding texture. In the Middle East, it becomes tahini buttressed by syrup. (Zingerman’s sells a Jewish version in dark chocolate). In China, halva is now mostly a crumbly peanut candy, held together with maltose.
Halva’s presence in China is startling. Let’s face it, the Middle Kingdom has a reputation for insularity. Halva’s enduring presence in the Chinese-speaking world, however, softens the usual narrative, hinting of an open palate.
Our story begins relatively late in Chinese history -- in the fourteenth century. Halva made its debut in a wildly popular almanac, which instructed well-to-do Chinese families on the finer points of good living (for translations and discussion, see Buell's article in the Mongol Empire and its Legacy). In those days, halva was just a grain-based sweet, akin to present-day Iranian and Greek varieties. The family resemblance is no coincidence, of course. The earliest recipe made no bones about its foreign origin: not only did halva have an exotic-sounding name, but it turned up in the section on “Muslim” recipes.
Predictably, halva made its debut while China was still under foreign rule. When the Mongols conquered the land south of the River Huai in 1279, they did far more than reunite people in Shanghai with their brethren up north; they inserted China into a massive Eurasian empire, stretching as far west as Eastern Europe and as far south as Vietnam. Along the way, the Mongols connected China to a wider world of trade and material exchange. Under their rule, Persians, Turks, and Arabs circulated throughout the Chinese world, leaving their mark on the khan’s kitchen in Beijing. (For the eclecticism of the Mongol table, read the magnificent translation of the Essentials of Diet by Paul Buell, Charles Perry, and Gene Anderson).
Known as “men with colored eyes,” these Muslim newcomers did far more than trade, translate, and administer a massive realm on behalf of the Mongol khan. They also introduced their foodways to the Chinese-speaking world. The Southern Chinese elite may have distained their Mongol overlords, but this did not stop them from appreciating the fruits of their rule.
Chinese cooks not only learned from Muslims how to make halva, but also lamb-stuffed eggplants, Iranian kashk, baklava, and börek. The most popular cookbooks, in fact, boasted of sizable collections of foreign recipes: Jurchen roasts, Tangut innards, and Central Asian pastries.
The cosmopolitanism persisted in the Chinese kitchen for centuries – long after the departure of the Mongols. Popular Chinese cookbooks continued printing foreign recipes up until the seventeenth century. Halva's stay in China did not end with the demise of the “Muslim” recipe section. In the seventeenth century, a second kind made a splash in the coastal south. Unlike the medieval variety, the early modern version was a fancy treat. Cooks mixed flour with pine nuts and clotted cream, two pricey ingredients.
By the seventeenth century, Muslim foods faced competition from Manchu delicacies. Eager to win over their new overlords, Chinese merchants learned the ropes of the Manchu banquet. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the foodways of a new kind of foreign devil began to menace the pages of Chinese cookbooks. Shanghai housewives learned to prepare meat roasts, pork chops, cream soups, and bread in the Anglo-American style.
Our subject matter too changed with the times. In the nineteenth century, it retired its foreign-sounding name. It’s been known as “flaky sugar” ever since. Nut halva has moreover spun off into a million, cheap varieties. Peanuts, sesame seeds, and mung bean flour now vie as the recipe’s lead ingredients. Peanuts, of course, enjoy certain advantages over its rivals. The New World legumes grow just fine on poor soil (something for which China does not lack).
Today, flaky sugar is just another Chinese food. Eaten during the Lunar New Year, it conjures up memories of hearth and family. In this respect, it is like the pumpkin pies we Yankees consume at Thanksgiving.
But things were different several hundred years ago. Long before it reminded my Chinese mother of a distant homeland, halva offered her ancestors a touch of foreign sophistication.
This recipe appears in cookbooks from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its authors assumed that the reader had a basic understanding of the procedures and omitted relevant cooking information like quantities and cooking times. By looking at several modern recipes with similar elements, I was able to reconstruct the proportions.
Pine nuts, 100 grams (you can substitute raw peanuts)
Salt, 2 grams
Flour, 20 grams
Sugar, 30 grams (or maltose, available at Chinese supermarkets)
1. Prepare a pan, lined with wax paper and coated generously with unsalted butter (or clotted cream).
2. Toast the nuts over low heat until golden. For peanuts, you can use a toaster oven and bake at 180 degrees F. Three minutes is enough, but if using pine nuts, keep a close watch over them. Pine nuts brown quickly and become bitter if overcooked.
3. Once cool enough to handle, grind the pine nuts with a food processor. If using peanuts, first rub off the skins. If using a food processor, be careful not to over blend, as the oil and nut paste will separate.
4. Toast the flour on a pan until slightly golden (about 10 minutes on low heat). Stir to prevent the top from being under-cooked and the bottom from being burnt.
5. Combine flour and nut paste with salt.
6. Prepare the syrup. If using sugar, mix four parts water to one part sugar. Heat until the sugar reaches 245 degrees F on a candy thermometer. At that point, the syrup will acquire a golden hue and thicken. If using maltose, heat it with a few drops of water in a pan so that it becomes semi-liquid, or microwave the mixture for 10 seconds. Stop after the maltose runs.
7. Incorporate the flour and nut paste into the syrup with a silicone spatula, and pour it into the prepared pan.
8. Allow the mixture to cool until it is slightly warm. Cut the halva into slices before it has cooled to room temperature, otherwise it will break.