Thursday, June 18, 2009

Russian sunflower halva (подсолнечная халва)

Many dishes that Russians think of as their own hail from Russia's own Near East of the Volga region, Transcaucacus and Central Asia. Those cuisines are little known outside the former Soviet Union and unjustly so. It is a true cornucopia of flavours and amazing ingredients. It combines such diverse culinary traditions as Georgian, Tatar, Uzbek and Kazakh. To the Western mind they all may seem as an inscrutable jumble of 'stans while in fact they differ from each other as much as, say, Iceland and Bosnia in Europe.

Halva is one of such traditional Russian treats that are Oriental in origin. It is made from finely ground kernels of sunflower seeds mixed with sugar into a smooth crumbling mass. Sesame seeds can also be used but this kind of halva is considered (in Russia anyway) to be inferior to the sunflower one.

It is nowhere to be found in London, so every time I have to bug my Russian visitors to bring me some. It is quite sweet and rich both in taste and texture. The flavour is that of lightly roasted sunflower kernels. It also packs in some serious calories, although all vegetable-based. A couple of small chunks is normally enough to keep you from craving sweets for at least a day. Halva's lush sweetness goes amazingly well with coffee's aromatic bitterness. I have it sometimes for breakfast when having no appetite for anything more substantial.

Peculiarly enough, the cheaper sorts of halva, sold en gros, actually taste better then the fancier vacuum-packed ones.

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