My Family Recipe

How Armenian Funeral Halva Helped My Family Find Home in America

The healing ritual of food and mourning.

October 23, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

There was only one thing I understood about death as a child: When it arrived, it brought with it halva.

Halva (which means “sweetmeat” in Arabic) is a confectionary made with assorted ingredients like tahini (sesame paste) or semolina and eaten in various forms across the world, from the Middle East to the Balkans to India. It’s even sold commercially in the U.S. The recipe I knew, however, involved four key things: sugar, butter, flour, and funerals.

At the funerals I attended growing up in Iran, wading through a sea of black outfits with the distinct smell of frankincense in my nose, I’d search through the crowd for my aunts and the glistening, aluminum foil–wrapped treasure they carried on a tray. Multiple days of mourning, house visits, and marathon funeral services administered by the Armenian Apostolic Church—this was the price I had to pay for a tiny piece of halva. It would disappear as quickly as it would materialize, giving me mere seconds of joy in the midst of grief.

I can’t remember when I first had funeral halva, a tradition practiced by several Middle Eastern communities, including Iranians, Assyrians, Turks, and me and Armenians like my family. But I know I never forgot what it tasted like: equal parts grainy and sweet, a little nutty. I loved the simplicity of it, how such intensity could be created by stirring together three ingredients that only partially formed other recipes.

I always had trouble taking just one piece.

I was born in Tehran, to an Armenian family whose roots carry the complicated combination of a centuries-old legacy in the country now known as Iran, and a history of genocide, exile, and migration. We came to the U.S. as refugees at the tail end of the Iran–Iraq War, and like many Iranian and Armenian immigrants thrust into a world thousands of miles from the one they knew, tried to recreate home in Southern California.

I quickly learned that life inside my house—where my name was pronounced the way it was intended to be said, where I ate stuffed grape leaves instead of peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches, and where my parents watched public access programming in Armenian and Farsi instead of the Super Bowl—was different from life elsewhere. Dealing with this contrast as a child often overwhelmed and confused me. Back then, my two identities didn’t blend together as easily as they do now; their melding was a slow, simmering process that required patience.

It would disappear as quickly as it would materialize, giving me mere seconds of joy in the midst of grief.

Eventually, working to establish ourselves in the new country, we had stayed long enough to begin burying family, friends and acquaintances. Funerals formed the backbone of my childhood, the same way weddings did. They were big, expensive, elaborate events full of many people I knew, and many I did not.

I accompanied my parents to Armenian churches scattered across Los Angeles and to cemeteries that held both the immigrants that built L.A. and the Hollywood stars that made the city famous. I went to wakes, where distant relatives spoke quietly under their breaths and gulped down endless piping hot chai from a samovar. I attended drawn-out church services, listening to excruciatingly somber, yet beautiful Armenian hymns and the booming voice of the priest that bounced off the walls as he read from the Bible. The graveside service was the home stretch. I gripped the grass with my shoes on the hills we stood on, and hoped I could hold on until the end. As the casket was lowered into the ground, the frankincense glowed in the brass burner, emitting clouds of smoke that acted as a pathway between mortal prayers and God.

After requiem services, we would get in our cars once more and drive to a special lunch called the hokeh-jash, which means “soul-meal,” a memorial meal for the deceased. Stemming from an age-old tradition where food was made and distributed to the poor after a death, the hokeh-jash evolved into a service held at home or a nearby restaurant, hosted by bereaved family members.

For my family, that meant heading up to the banquet-style second floor of an Iranian-Armenian restaurant, where we dined on what we always did, whether there was a funeral or not: a table covered from end to end in various dishes and appetizers like koobideh, an Iranian kebab made from beef, saffron-stained rice and a shallot-yogurt dip called mast o’ moosir among copious amounts of lavash bread, butter, and sumac.

When I couldn’t (or didn’t) want to attend these funerals, I’d request halva to be brought back home.

“Can you sneak a piece, or maybe two?” I’d ask my parents as they stood in the doorway, heading to the cemetery. Recapturing the taste of halva in the New World became a personal mission of mine.

Photo by Julia Gartland

It must've been significant that my dad began making this funeral food at home for us, where everyone was very much alive. My sister and I would crave it spontaneously, the memory of its taste hitting us when we lingered too long at the dinner table, filling the silent space with reminisces about when we had last seen our extended family. Or Grandma, before we buried her.

We’d wait and watch, witnessing my dad practice his art in a different way. In the making of halva here in America, his skills as an artist came to use, a life and career he had largely left behind when the war took him from his home and made him a refugee. He'd stir the flour in a saucepan until it turned the color of burnt ivory, then add the butter and sugar. Shaping a glob of burnt flour and butter into a tray was no easy task, and neither was using kitchen utensils to carve uniform designs on top. This process bound us to each other at a time when we were unsure of our place in a new, unfamiliar country.

Funeral halva was that and more.

I loved the simplicity of it, how such intensity could be created by stirring together three ingredients that only partially formed other recipes.

It was a ritual food, but it also became a marker of my own identity. It made me aware that even in death, the legacy I had to contend with spanned several countries and cultures. It was a tradition practiced for millennia, imported and kept alive in diasporic communities that helped define who we were. It was a little piece of sweetness that always reminded me how complex my history was up until the very end.

They say you don’t fully become part of a place until you put your dead in the ground.

My family has created a home in America. Our traditions have become as much a part of this landscape as our deceased kin have. Though I’ll always associate halva with funerals, it's become a bigger symbol of all the people and places I could no longer access: the city I never knew as an adult, the language I never fully learned, the relatives I never got to see over the years. Growing up, I often felt like I didn’t have much to ground me in one place or another, but food, especially halva, became a tangible personification of my roots, the same way it has for so many immigrants and their children.

Though much was lost over the years, there was always halva. It helped me explore and connect with a history interrupted by forced migration and political upheaval, a sweet intermediary between life and death, a dense fusion made of flour, sugar, and butter.

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Liana Aghajanian

Written by: Liana Aghajanian


1 Comment

Andrea October 24, 2018
Thank you for sharing this story. My husband is from a Balkan country and when a close friend died here someone made this exact thing (it didn't look nearly as beautiful as what you have pictured), but no one could explain what it was. My husband hadn't had it before, but everyone else was in agreement that it was made when someone died and everyone had to have a piece when they arrived at the house. I love getting a bit more background on the customs from my husbands homeland.