At least here in the US, it’s a handful of holidays – I’m looking at you Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa – that command our attention during the cheerful season.
That unfortunately means, though, that many other lesser-known festivals from around the world go unheralded, and we miss out on the wealth of food traditions that they have to offer.
As we dive into shab-e-yalda and the recipe for the ever-fragrant halva havij, we’ll do our best to change that today.
Halva Havij, Mithra, Shab e Cheleh and Yalda
Depending on your perspective, many of the modern religions are actually fairly new to the holiday scene. Christmas and Hanukkah began “only” two millennia ago, and Kwanzaa was created in the last century!
But winter festivals are by no means a recent invention in humanity’s history. In fact, the winter solstice has held major importance in the calendars of civilizations dating back thousands of years.
We don’t have to look further than in Iran to find a great example.
The Indo-Iranians and Mithra
To really understand the origin of shab-e-yalda requires us to take a trip back several millennia.
Between 4000 and 3000 BC, communities of Indo-Europeans migrated southward and eastward away from their original home, the southern Russian steppes of the Caucuses. As they developed their own traditions and unique cultural characteristics, this branch of Indo-European became the Proto-Indo-Iranians, and they are the earliest known lineage distinctly for the Iranian and Indian cultures.
The Proto-Indo-Iranians believed in a religion focused on the natural elements. Deities represented natural elements like water (the goddess Apas) and fire (the god Atar), and each of these deities were equally worshipped and offered sacrifices to by their cults of followers. Other types of “nature gods” like Asman (lord of the Sky), Zam (goddess of the Earth) and Mah (the moon deity) had their own raving fans too.
It’s here in this pre-Zoroastrian time that we meet a key figure: Mithra. Originally a special type of fire deity, Mithra’s role eventually expanded to everything from lord of the pasture to the sun deity. He eventually came to symbolize all goodness and strength, making him one of the most powerful and popular deities in this Indo-Iranian system of belief.
Key moments in the Earth’s natural seasonal cycles laid a great foundation for pivotal moments in the religious calendar. Mithra was born on the winter solstice from the light of the Alborz mountains at the time when the darkness over the land was greatest. His birth symbolized the turning point in the battle between light and dark, and the increasing daylight was evidence that he succeeded in bringing light and prosperity back into the world.
Mithra’s birthday therefore became one of the most significant moments in the Indo-Iranian year, and it was a moment commemorated with communal feasts and parties well into the night. These feasts went by different names as the Persian language developed, but they were the basis of what we now know as shab-e-yalda.
Enter Zoroastrianism and The Shab-e-Chelleh
Eventually, the Indo-Iranian religion gave way to a new religion: Zoroastrianism. Around 1500 BC, a man named Zarathustra had a divine vision. Disenchanted with the old forms of worship – including barbaric rituals of animal sacrifices and primitive use of the haoma hallucinogenic plant – Zarathustra offered a reconstructed form of worship to the Iranians. In this new religion, there was a core belief in only one god, the Ahura Mazda, and the many deities from the earlier religions were merely different manifestations of this one same god.
Despite this gradual shift to monotheism, Mithra resiliently remained a highly revered character in Zoroastrianism. He eventually joined the ahuric triad – a set of three holy Zoroastrian figures not unlike to the Holy Trinity – and the winter solstice festival remained an important date in the Zoroastrian calendar.
You could say, though, that the festival was reinvented a bit. The night of the solstice now coincided with the last day of the month Azar, and the dark forces – though still at peak strength – were now called the Ahriman.
To ensure a total victory for the light forces, people would feast, burn fires, offer prayers to Mithra and perform acts of charity to their community. The next morning – on the first day of the month Dey – Ahura Mazda would grant the people’s wishes and usher in the light. This day was called khoram rooz, and it would kick off a forty day period called the great chelleh before the Jashn-e-Sadeh festival, which is another topic for another time.
As the night before the great chelleh, the festival took on its new name: shab-e-chelleh (shab means “night” in Farsi).
Another Name Change, and the Modern Celebration
A lot more has changed to the original shab-e-chelleh festival, and that includes even its name!
Nowadays, the holiday is called shab-e-yalda. The word yalda is actually a borrowed word meaning “birth” from the language of the Syriac Christians, but it replaced the original shab-e-chelleh name for the holiday shortly after the word was integrated into the Persian language.
Following the Islamic conquest of Iran, many of the original Zoroastrian connotations for the holiday have disappeared, but shab-e-yalda remains an important date in the Persian calendar. It is now a time for extended family and friends to gather together and to pass the night together with good company. Poetry from Hafez will be read, stories will be told, and of course there will be copious amounts of food!
About the Recipe
Before diving into the recipe for halva ye havij specifically, it’s important to note that halva in general isn’t unique to Persian cuisine. In fact, the word halva doesn’t come from a Persian word at all, rather it’s from the Arabic word hulw for sweet.
There are nonetheless intricate differences between Persian preparations and those from other parts of the world. From places like Libya to Syria even in the cuisines of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, recipes for halva follow similar guidelines to create a sweet made from a base of semolina flour or ground seeds. Levantine cuisines might use tahini (ground sesame seeds), whereas Lithuanian chalva uses sunflower seeds, while the halawa in Myanmar uses poppy seeds.
And while Persian cuisine does have these types of halva – halva ardeh is the recipe using a tahini base – there is a great flexibility allowed to create different, unconventional types. Like our recipe for halva havij, halva asali and khoshk halva are two recipes that commonly use rice flour and honey instead of semolina and sugar, respectively. Of course, there are also ingredients like saffron, pomegranate, barberries and more used to keep your taste buds constantly abound with flavors. So long as it comes out sweet in the end, though, you can make the case that it’s halva.
This Halva Preparation
Preparing halva ye havij is actually fairly easy, and there’s a reasonable amount of non-active time spent on the recipe. For that time where you are active, however, expect to be really active in preparing the dessert.
To start, you’ll want to soften your large pile of shredded carrots. The smaller you shred your carrots, the better (we find) your end product will be. No matter what size of carrot pieces you have, though, you’ll start by cooking it with a mixture of boiling water and dissolved sugar in a stockpot. Be prepared to budget at least 30 minutes to get the carrots to the right level of soft they need to be.
As the carrots soften, you’ll want to create a paste out of your chosen flour and fat. In our case, we chose to make this halva ye havij with rice flour, but you can choose other flours as you’d like. You’ll want to start by lightly toasting your flour by moving it around in an un-oiled pan. Once you start to see (and sometimes smell) the flour starting to brown, you’ll then add in your desired fats.
Since your pan is already well heated while you toasted your rice flour, the fat should melt pretty instantly, so you’ll only have a small window to really properly combine your flour with your fat. The second you hear the sizzle of the fat melting in the pot, start to vigorously stir and fold your flour into the melted fat. Keep stirring until everything is integrated and you’ve stirred out most of the clumps. What should happen is that you get a beautiful golden paste.
When you do, it’s now time to combine in your softened carrots into the mix. Be very careful when adding in your carrots, since there can be some splattering as the ingredients mix together. Fold in your carrots into the golden paste bit by bit, and continue to mix around vigorously.
By this point, you’ll start to get a fairly thick, almost lumpy paste, which serves as a good indicator to you that it’s time to add in your most fragrant ingredients: saffron and rose water. The saffron will have been dissolved in rosewater ahead of time, so you’ll simply add it into your pot of halva and, again, stir vigorously. You should get a paste that becomes a little less viscous and easier to stir… and it will smell really, really fragrant.
After a few more minutes of stirring around, you should have a really smooth-looking paste of halva ready to go. All you need to do from there is spread it into your serving dish, garnish it, and then set it aside to let it cool. Once cooled, your halva ye havij should have hardened a bit into a bit of a thicker dessert, although it should very much still feel soft to the touch.
When soft, cut a slice for yourself, and enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
As we did with our recipe for sabzi polo ba mahi, we turned to one of our favorite Persian cookbook authors – Najmieh Batmanglij – for inspiration for our own recipe. Her recipes are well-thought out and always look exquisite, and she really knows what she’s talking about with Persian food.
Still, we found some opportunities to make some positive changes to the dish. For starters, we halved the recipe – you could say we halved the halva – so as not to make a crazy amount of the dessert.
From there, we also made some adjustments and used ingredients to make the recipe more vegan-friendly. While butter is a very common ingredient to use in making halva, there’s no reason we couldn’t make a similarly tasty dish with coconut oil that could be enjoyed by everyone.
As we usually do, we also substituted out regular sugar in favor of coconut sugar, and in this particular recipe it actually had a really flavorful impact on the dish. Rather than tasting overly sweet, it gave the dish a more subdued, heartier sweetness to it than outright sugar would have. We’d highly recommend the switch in this recipe if you have the chance.
Other than that, that’s pretty much it! Be it for shab e yalda or for really any festive celebration, halva ye havij is a fantastic tasting and elegant looking dessert option to have!
How would you prepare your halva ye havij? Comment below!
Halva Ye Havij: Persian Sweet Carrot Sweets
Yield 8 people
- 7-8 large carrots (approximately 1 pound)
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup coconut sugar
- 1 cup rice flour
- 3/4 cup coconut oil
- 1/4 cup rosewater
- 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
Garnishes (Optional, but very pretty)
- 1 tablespoon ground pistachios
- 1 tablespoon ground walnuts
- 1 tablespoons dried crushed rose petals
Stage 1 - Boil and Soften Carrots
- Start by grating your carrots into smaller shreds, either by hand or with a food processor. When you have all your carrots grated, set aside for just a moment
- Take a stockpot over medium high heat and add in your water
- Before your water starts to boil, add in your coconut sugar. Stir well to dissolve the sugar as the water starts to boil
- Next, add in your grated carrots, and stir everything well together. When everything's mixed, cover your stockpot, reduce your heat to a simmer, and let the carrots cook and soften for 30 minutes (but start Stage 2 below after 20 minutes)
Stage 2 - Prepare the Halva Base
- Start by dissolving your saffron into your rosewater, then set aside for the time being
- Take a Dutch oven or another thick-bottomed pot over medium-high heat
- When heated, add in your rice flour, and begin to move it around either with a ladle or a heat-proof spatula. You'll want to keep moving the flour around for 5-7 minutes so that it can lightly brown but not burn
- As you see the rice flour start to brown, create a well in the middle of your pot and add in your coconut oil. As the oil starts to quickly melt, very quickly and vigorously mix it in with the rice flour
- Continue to stir your rice flour/coconut oil mixture for another minute to remove any clumps. You should have a beautiful, golden brown smooth paste at the end
- By this point, your carrots will have been well-softened and ready to use. Take your pot of carrots and add it to the rice flour and coconut oil paste. Be very careful for any splattering that might happen
- Using a very sturdy ladle, vigorously stir the carrots into what is becoming a very thick paste
- As you're stirring, add in your dissolved saffron, rosewater and ground cardamom. Turn down your heat to a low setting, and continue to stir for 3-5 more minutes
Stage 3 - Finish, Cool and Garnish your Halva
- After several minutes of further stirring, you should have a luscious, dark paste with everything well integrated together. Take your stockpot off the stove and set it next to your serving dish
- Use a spatula or a flat edge to scoop pieces of paste into your serving dish, and smooth the top along the way. Repeat until you've filled your serving dish with paste
- Before putting it in the fridge to cool, top your halva ye havij with any garnish like ground pistachios or walnuts
- Set in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (though preferably longer) so that the halva can cool and harden
When hardened - but still soft to the touch - your halva is ready to serve. Enjoy!