A grain by any other name: more about Kolva

I’ve mentioned before how recipe names morph, which can make research tricky.  Early in April, in response to a question submitted here, I wrote about a wheat pudding called colva or kolva.  The one reliable reference I had found was a 1922 survey on nutrition, thoroughly secular and with no discussion whatsoever of religion or culture. I presented the recipe here – I couldn’t dig deeper at the time – and that was that.  But I wasn’t satisfied.

And with good reason, as it turns out.  A little more work on the name and I got to the root of near-eastern wheat puddings:  colva… kolva… kholva… khalva… halva.  Halva!  Of course.  But halva is just sweet sesame paste, right?  Nope.  According to Wikipedia, ‘halva’ (or halvah or halavah or halweh, etc.) is the Arabic root word for ‘sweet’, period.  Candy.  And as a generic it applies to a huge range of grain-based sweet confections “across the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, the Balkans and the Jewish World.”   Who knew?

In my house (in America) halva was just one thing – crumbly, bittersweet sesame paste candy – but halvas turn out also to be made from semolina, bulgur, sunflower seeds, carrots, even gourds, and often with the addition of pistachios, almonds, walnuts or peanuts.    The name changes accordingly to ‘this halva’ or ‘that halva’.  The full name for Turkish sesame halva, for example, is actually tahin helvasi.

Halva also turns out to have ritual significance in various traditions. In Moslem tradition halva puddings made with wheat flour, as opposed to whole grain wheat, are reserved for funerals and mourning periods.   In Ottoman Sephardic tradition, colva – boiled whole wheat pudding – is served when a baby cuts the first tooth – as mentioned by a reader with roots in Kastoria (Greece) in the April 1 post – and also during Tu b’Shevat, the Festival of Trees, which is called ‘las Frutas’ in Sephardic tradition.  Tu b’Shevat celebrates the beginning of the planting season.  It’s a minor Jewish holiday, one we learned about when I was growing up but never observed – except in the form of sponsoring trees to be planted in the Bar Kochba Forest (Somewhere in the Bar Kochba Forest there’s a tree dedicated to Ralph, my dear, departed pet canary who flew the coop one summer in the Adirondaks) .

In reading about Las Frutas I was struck by a description of how, on this holiday, Turkish Sephardic children would go visiting with their parents from house to house, each armed with a little sack.   At each house they visited, the children were given treats associated with the holiday – dried fruits and nuts –  to put in their sacks and take home.  Hmmm… Somehow, I don’t imagine the kids were dressed like ghosts & witches (nor that they threw rotten ouevos haminados if they didn’t like what they were given)…  If anyone has a memoir of how las Frutas is or was celebrated in their Ottoman Sephardic home, I’d love to be able to include it here.

The full Wikipedia article about halva in its myriad guises is at this link.   A Turkish Sephardic recipe for colva is available in Ladino (a snap to understand if you read Spanish – just read it phonetically out loud) at savores de siempre, a Ladino language food blog lovingly written by Sarah, a French-Turkish woman with roots in Izmir.  Sarah’s recipe is called trigo, which simply means wheat.  It’s nothing elaborate – just boiled whole wheat mixed with some sugar, honey, raisins and walnuts.  Pretty much the way I like my oatmeal.

Last (for now), I found another reference to colva that was under my nose all along, albeit with yet another slightly modified name: kofyas.  This is the pronunciation given by a woman from Iderne, Turkey, whose recipe appears in Cooking the Sephardic Way. (Sephardic Sisterhood of Temple Tifereth Israel, Los Angeles 1971).  Hers calls for boiled whole grain wheat blended with sugar or honey to taste, a sprinkling of cinnamon and chopped nuts.  You get the idea.   An aside about this cookbook:  There are two reasons I haven’t mentioned it up to now.  One:  it was a vanity press publication so it’s never been reprinted and is very hard to find.  Two:  it’s also a good example of one of those iffy cookbooks I’ve written about – inconsistent recipe quality, sketchy instructions and too much deviation from authenticity (ketchup instead of tomato sauce? NO! Muenster cheese? NEVER.).  All the same it’s a decent reference if you know what you’re looking for and how to correct recipes, either back to traditional authenticity or just to improve flavor or texture.  And it was written with love.

Until the next time.



Filed under Holidays (fiestas judias), Other Reading, Recipes

5 responses to “A grain by any other name: more about Kolva

  1. Starling

    I want to tell you how much I am enjoying this blog. Officially I am second generation since both parents came to the US in 1920, separately since they came from different parts of the Ottoman Empire and my mother was only a little girl immigrating with her parents at the time.

    But in reality I had almost no experience with traditional foods as a child. I slipped through the cracks. Occasionally there was something traditional at a holiday meal, but it was so rare that I’m only discovering now what was traditional and what wasn’t.

    Oh, and Kastoria is currently in Macedonia, not Greece. It, and Bitola, are pretty close to the border.

  2. Ferinannnd

    Спасибо за Ваш труд!!

  3. Hello,
    I think it’s been a while since you have contributed to your interesting blog. I am enjoying it. However, I grew up in a home in which my mom religiously used the Cooking the Sephardic Way cookbook. I have my own copy on the shelf with other Sephardic cookbooks. Despite the faults you point out, this is historically one of the best Sephardic cookbooks that predates the deluge of now popular books compiled by every Tom, Dick, and Harry

    • Janet

      Today I would definitely agree with you, Annette. My opinion was formed (and remark made) a long time ago, before Sephardic food was suddenly deemed trendy. A lot has changed since then, and not for the better! At some point I will revisit the book 🙂 Apologies for my tardiness in posting and replying to your well observed comment. I’m just back from a long leave of absence.

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