The Addictive Joy Of The Sesame Confection Halvah

Photo Credit: Kirk McKoy : Los Angeles Times Halvah
Photo Credit: Kirk McKoy : Los Angeles Times Halvah
Photo Credit: Kirk McKoy : Los Angeles Times Halvah

Katie Gurvin plunges her aqua-gloved arms into the bowl of hot tahini-sugar-fluff mixture and begins to work her magic. Hints of vanilla, caramel and sesame waft up as the young halvah maker repeatedly twirls her hands through the tawny batter. As spaghetti-like strands form, she lifts, stretches and lets them drop, her movements somewhere between pulling Chinese noodles and taffy. When the stuff resembles a bread sponge, Gurvin shifts to powerful kneading until finally the metamorphosis is complete — the once soupy mixture is now a pale 35-pound mass of sesame halvah, one of the world’s most ancient confections.

If you’re already familiar with the dense tahini-based sweet found in ethnic markets and delis, you may have wondered how the stuff is made. If you’re like many Americans, you may know tahini — but halvah? Not so much. The best halvah is tahini-forward and shot with spun sugar, each bite yielding a delicate shatter before dissolving in a creamy, nutty finish.

Since June, Gurvin and her Israeli American husband, Scott Hebel, have been handcrafting organic, vegan, Levant-style sesame halvah at Hebel & Co. in Los Angeles. The duo works in a Crafted Kitchen incubator space in the Industrial Arts section of downtown Los Angeles, where they manufacture 220 to 500 pounds of halvah per week in four flavors — vanilla, pistachio, chocolate-hazelnut, and hot cocoa — that they sell to retailers and restaurants, at the Hollywood farmers market and online. (They’ll be scaling up when they move into their own kitchen in April.)


Halvah — the name comes from the Arabic word for sweetmeat — has been around since at least 7th century Persia, where it was then likely made from semolina. Versions made from grains, vegetables and nuts are popular in South Asia, Ukraine and parts of the Levant, but the most famous is sesame halvah from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. It’s traditionally enjoyed with afternoon coffee or tea, for dessert; or, in Iran, as an earthy-sweet counterpoint to an appetizer platter of herbs, radishes, feta cheese and flatbread.

Thanks to chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Michael Solomonov and Alon Shaya, Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisines are catching on with chefs whose cooking has no connection to the Eastern Mediterranean. This month, Forbes named tahini, halvah’s main ingredient, a breakout growing food trend.

For Hebel, it all began with a simple desire to re-create his Bukharan-Polish-Austrian-Israeli family’s weekend tradition.

“Every Saturday morning when I was a kid, my dad bought bagels and halvah,” says the New Jersey native. “It was our version of weekend waffles.” As he developed a passion for food, Hebel wanted a better version of his childhood treat than the “industrially produced stuff I mostly ate growing up.”

Hebel has spent his adult life seeking out great halvah, from Chicago, where he worked in the tech industry, and Los Angeles to Israel, Egypt and Greece — he’s even sampled nonsesame halvah in India. But he couldn’t find the caliber he wanted locally. Good halvah depends on the quality of ingredients, a tahini-sugar ratio (at least 50% tahini) and how well the finished product is cared for — heat and moisture are the enemy of sugar work.