Pehlivan Halva » Halva in The Ottoman Empire

Evliya Çelebi regards eating dessert as one of the qualifications of being a good muslim. He also states that candy and halva sellers had framed phrases hanging on the wall of their shops such as “Loving dessert is next to godliness” and “The believer is like a halva” which are common usages among candy and halva sellers.

We can say that the Ottomans’ fascination with sweet foods may be a bit relevant to the religion. The number of candy shops and confectioneries has surprised the Western travelers and that has taken a large place in their memoirs.

 On the other side, neither during the Ottoman Empire nor today, not any food of rich Turkish cuisine has been loved as much as halva and been so into the daily life of the people for many centuries in Anatolia. Halva, one of the irrevocable flavors of the Anatolian cuisine culture, has been a tradition in the human life intensifying the meaning of many special days from birth to death. It is a food handed out even after one’s death on the memory of the deceased.

According to the Ottoman customs and traditions, halva was a food to be handed out on every important event and it used to take its place in every ceremony meal.  A new-born baby would be welcomed with halva; one would be bidden farewell to his final journey with halva. In other words, the most important events between the life and death would be celebrated or announced with halva. Halva was a must at the wedding dinners. Buying a new house, starting the school and graduation of a child, going into the army, going and returning on a pilgrimage were the special events announced to the neighbors by handing out halva. In short course, happiness and sadness was shared with the friends and relatives by eating halva. Especially, semolina halva would be cooked on these days. Halva would also be handed out on the Yoghurt Feast, the first day of the lamb’s ablactation; at the crocus wedding, the day the first crocus is seen; on hıdrellez (the beginning of the summer), at the blessed nights, Islamic memorial ceremonies, feasts and on the first days of three months known as Recep, Şaban and Ramadan.   

In this part, we should let the verses of Faruk Nafiz take the floor in the manner of expressing his expectations from the Ramadan:


“Ramadan has come with bliss, Let’s welcome it,

Let it bring halva, baklava and a variety of food with it!”

In the Ottoman Palace, halva conversations were hold using eating halva as an excuse. As a result, halva has become the reason for joy, happiness, science, culture, poetry, epigram, meetings and celebrations.       

Within the Topkapı Palace, halva used to be cooked in the halva house, the building built by Mimar Sinan (The architect Sinan) during the reign of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman (Suleiman the Magnificent). Among the Palace cooks, confectioners made up of a different class called “helvacıyan-ı hassa” and were a member of halva makers’ guild. Successful cooks in the halva house were promoted as the chief halva maker, chief taster or chief compote maker. Everyone working in the halva house was under the supervision of the chief halva maker.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were six chiefs and more than one hundred assistants associated with the halva makers guild.

Other than halva, all types of desserts like jam, syrup, sherbet, rock candy, lokma (a kind of syrupy fried cake), and baklava were made at the halva house and besides; a variety of paste, pickle  and soup was made.

Moreover, halva house was the place where world famous pastes of the sultans that have the effects of an aphrodisiac and the medicines needed at the palace were made under the supervision of the chief physician.  

A variety of halva was made at the palace. The major of them were helva-i hakani, helva-i kafi, helva-i muşkife, helva-i bişemni, helva-i levzine, honey halva , sugar halva, molasses halva, helva-i sabuni, kızıl (reddish) sabuni, sarı (yellow) sabuni, gök (sky) sabuni, parmak (finger) sabuni, temur hindi sabuni, halva with pistachio, levzine-halva with almond, helva-i memuniye, helva-i güllabiye, helva-i ishakiye, helva-i asude, veteran´s halva, rice halva, Uzbek halva, halva of salt-free fresh cheese, don’t tell your aunt halva, halva of Reşadiye, halva of rice flour, thready halva, halva of lamunya (a kind of cream), semolina halva and halva of tahini.

Generally, honey or molasses was used in halva as the sweetener.

It is written in the Book of Halva house that halva was made at the halva house of the Topkapı Palace and handed out to celebrate the succession of Sultan I. Ahmed to the throne. There is also a record on file, demonstrating that a variety of entertainments was arranged, halva was made and handed out on behalf of Sultan III. Mustafa when his kid was born. However there is no record stating that halva was made in the halva house and handed out upon the death of the sultans.

There would be henna night in the Ottoman Palace, a night before the circumcision feast of the lineages. In November of 1539, fifty-three kinds of dessert were served to the guests after dinner at the henna night of Beyazid and Cihangir, sons of Suleiman the Magnificent. At the night, which is known that about 3400 kilograms of sugar was consumed, a variety of jams and halva had also taken their places.

At the circumcision feast of the lineages, a variety of festivals were organized at the Hippodrome that was watched by the Sultan from the beginning to the end. In these festivals, the whole craftsman guilds would participate in the festival procession in groups, pass by the Sultan and make demonstrations.

There would be the chief halva maker and the chief confectioner of the city at the head of all these craftsman guilds. And the Sultan would give a feast as a proof of his power and generosity, in return. At the Ottoman feasts, desserts weren’t served at the end of the dinner; they were served in the middle or as the intervention of the salty entrées instead. The tradition of having the dessert not anytime during the meal but only at the end started in France in the 18th century, and spread over England. Westerns that were used to this tradition in the 19th century, found our eating the sweet and salty meal together, not in any order, strange when they visited our country.

The German commissioned Officer Helmut von Moltke, serving for the Ottoman army during the reign of II. Mahmud, was among the ones who were surprised by our eating habbit. Von Moltke, participating at the feast given for the foreign diplomats at Küçüksu to celebrate the circumcision of the lineages, expresses his surprise in these words: “ First, tripe of lamb in oven is served, following that halva is served, after that fries, and then the dessert…”

The tradition of serving one or two kinds of dessert had continued in the traditionalist regions by the end of Ottoman Empire. This tradition still can be seen today in some parts of Anatolia.