Take a new approach to holiday leftovers with this sweet Somali tradition

Halwa is a Turkish delight-like sweet dish often gifted during the holidays.
Halwa is a Turkish delight-like sweet dish often gifted during the holidays.
Image: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma
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The joy of sharing food with friends and loved ones lies at the heart of the festive season. A longstanding Somali tradition can help guests give back.

Given the communal nature of African families, holiday celebrations often involve a large number of relatives and distant cousins trickling into homes from far away. The families receiving them cook ample food, with the dishes, ingredients, spices, and flavors varying depending on the culture. Despite the fact that everyone is expected to finish what he or she is served at the lunch or dinner table, even after second or third helpings, copious amounts of food often remains.

Among the Somali community, food is never thrown away. Leftovers are stored to eat for breakfast or lunch the next day. Another custom is to pack the food into containers and send them away with guests. Often, guests will return this kind act by sending the containers back filled with sweet delicacies and desserts.

One of these delicacies is the halwa, a Turkish delight-like sweet dish made with sugar, cornstarch, oil, nutmeg. and cardamom. There are variations of halwa across the world—the word itself means “sweet” in Arabic. Another desert that is gifted is kac kac, or Somali donuts, sprayed with powdered sugar. These are often eaten as snacks with sweet Somali tea.

This practice of giving back after receiving something is an extension of the traditional code of hospitality known as martisoor, which ensures that strangers and travelers are welcomed and never leave empty-handed. The expectation is that this would be reciprocated the next time your family is caught in a difficult situation, whether it’s a simply undercatering for guests at holiday time, or something more drastic, like escaping a famine or drought.

If you’d like to go one step further and give halwa a try yourself, here’s a recipe courtesy of the blog My Somali Food.

Bring two cups of granulated sugar, two cups of light brown sugar, and four cups of water to boil. Mix cornstarch, saffron and half of cup water, and allow it to dissolve. Add the one cup of cornstarch to the mixture. Cook the mixture over medium heat while stirring. As the mixture turns thick, start adding one cup of ghee or oil. This might take about 30 minutes. Continue adding oil when it sticks to the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring until the mixture gets separated. When it starts to leave the sides of the pan, add two teaspoons of cardamom and one teaspoon of ground cloves. Put the halwa on a baking sheet. Let it cool. Cut and serve. Sprinkling cashews on top is an option.

And here’s a recipe for Somali donuts from Somali food blog Xawash that yields 24 donuts:

Combine two cups of flour, half a cup of sugar, and one teaspoon of baking powder. Mix well. Add all the wet ingredients: two eggs, half a cup of unsalted, melted butter, and two tablespoons milk. Mix well. Knead well for three minutes. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Roll out the dough to ¼ inch (½ cm) thick. Cut into 24 pieces, then mark the surface by pressing a knife lightly on the dough. Fry in canola oil (at any other time) at 375 ° F / for three to four minutes until golden brown. Use medium heat.