Dakota Datebook


Monday, December 8, 2008


In 700 B.C., sesame was the official currency in Greece. The first recorded sesame recipe was written in Latin, for a delicious and tasty dinner of “Roasted Flamingo.” But for most in the German Triangle area in North Dakota, the memories of sesame were in the form of-Halvah.

Halvah, which in the Turkish language simply means “Sweetmeat,” can be traced back to Biblical times. 15th century Turkey brought the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. His Topkapi Palace was the home of exotic and glamorous courtly life, his palace kitchens rebuilt with 6 domes referred to as the Helvahane, or House of Helva. Helva (or Halvah) was made there daily to serve to the Sultan and his guests.

The 17th century brought elaborate banquets for the intelligent and the elite in Istanbul. These Helva suppers served the sesame seed- based treat between meal courses, and between rounds of entertainment and great discussion. Many cultures world- wide feel that sesame has mystical or sexual powers. Women mixed sesame with honey to promote fertility. India sees sesame as a sacred symbol of life and immortality.

Halvah is widely eaten by those of Greek, Lebanese, Eastern European and Jewish heritage. But for those in North Dakota who are German from Russia heritage, Halvah is a delicacy reserved for special occasions- namely served between Thanksgiving and Christmas-time. North Dakota families headed uptown to the local grocery store where large blocks of Halvah lay in deli cases. Vanilla, chocolate, or marbled flavored- grocers sliced off half a pound; maybe a pound, of the brick-like solid sesame confection, wrapped it in paper, and sent it home with eager customers. Sweet and crumbly, flaky and delicious, the holidays simply wouldn’t seem the same if Halvah wasn’t served.

In 1905, 22-year-old Nathan Radutzky from Kiev, Russia came to America with the dream of producing the same Halvah he ate back home. That dream became the birth of Brooklyn, New York-based Joyva Corporation. Since 1907, Joyva has been pretty much the only brand of Halvah available in North Dakota grocery stores. Customers can recognize the Joyva brand by the company logo- a Turkish man, complete with large moustache and traditional turban. The logo is recognizable in Jewish delis, North Dakota grocery stores and gourmet food shops across America.

Looking for a sweet treat to serve at Christmas-time? Say “Open Sesame” and try Halvah- the delicacy of Kings, Sultans, and Germans from Russia here in North Dakota.

Written by Jill Whitcomb
~Cooking with Joyva- recipe booklet from Joyva, 53 Varick Ave, Brooklyn, NY (the producer of Halvah in America since 1907)
~The Many Faces of Halvah- Kurma Dasa (adapted from an article on http://www.gourmed.gr) http://www.kurma.net/essays/e17.html
~Sugar Savvy- Halvah Nice Day- Joanna Miller- Feb. 7, 2007. http://sugarsavvy.net/2007/02/07/halvah-nice-day/
JOYVA- http//www.joyva.com/

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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