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On the morning of July 14, Abdinasir Aden, 46, shuffled around his new bakery, Xalwo Kismayo, in anticipation of Eid celebrations. Clad in a white apron, the chef and owner stood at the counter of the Lake Street establishment. He had packed the store with stacks of cookies and packages of beverages, but there were no customers in sight.
Still, he wasn’t worried. Abdinasir knew that with the Eid al-Adha holiday starting on the evening of July 19, customers would soon throng the store in search of the same thing: halwa.
Somali celebrations are defined by an abundance of foods and pastries, but there’s one item that’s never missing from all the major occasions, especially weddings and Eid festivities: halwa. This is a dessert, originally from the Middle East, but embraced and refined by other cultures around the world, from Sri Lanka to Turkey, and Somalia to Senegal.
Halwa is a burgundy-fleshed treat, cooked from sugar, ghee or oil, cornstarch, cardamom, and nutmeg. Served in cubes or as a sheet on a tray, halwa may seem to the unacquainted like a callused jam, or the interior of a gum drop, or even Spanish membrillo. But to loyal enthusiasts, it’s none of those things: Halwa is just halwa.
On the morning of the Eid celebration, the stiff flesh can be slashed smoothly by a knife, exposing a garnet interior. Though it looks sugary and gooey, the slices must roll off one’s fingers without sticking or leaving hard traces.
Traditionally, new couples would assemble buckets of halwa during their honeymoon and dish it out to guests, serving it on a plate with cookies and tea or coffee.
Sending a guest home without halwa is an offense; leaving it off the menu, a scandal.
In the United States, Minneapolis is the capital of halwa, and businesses here ship the delight to states with larger pockets of Somali residents, such as Ohio and Utah. There are only a handful of bakeries in the city that prepare their own halwa in volume: Quruxlow Restaurant, Hamdi Restaurant, Dur Dur Bakery and Grocery, and Banadir Kitchen, all on Lake Street; and Xalwo Kismayo and Grill, on Bloomington Avenue.
Pilgrims stream in to grab a bite of halwa at these bakeries and at shops that stock their foods, carrying home a pound or two in sealed packages for family and friends. Some families buy it on Fridays; others drop in daily, buying a one-pound package, the most popular size on the menu.
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Abdinasir told Sahan Journal that he expects to sell between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of hawla during the festivities, his second biggest selling event of the year after Eid al-Fitr. He has six employees working for him and hopes to hire four more.
A 40-pound halwa bucket for $200
In 2013, Abdinasir visited Minneapolis during Eid and saw the long lines for halwa at the leading Somali bakery in the city. Since 2010, he’s owned a restaurant in Seattle, Washington. He instantly knew the Minnesota market was larger than the supply and he decided to open a second branch.
“We saw the need and brought halwa here,” Abdinasir said. “We struggled for the first two or three years, then it picked up.”
For the four years Xalwo Kismayo has been in Minneapolis, business has flourished. This has allowed Abdinasir to add the new bakery, which launched in March 2020. Next year, he plans to open another branch in Columbus, Ohio.
The bakery sells bucketfuls of halwa, wholesale, to smaller Somali shops in St. Paul, Burnsville, and Eden Prairie, extending the delight across the metro. Most customers pick up halwa in small containers, measured by the pound and each costing $5. The buckets, which hold 40 pounds, mostly go to wedding ceremonies and run $200 (at retail).
“Kismayo is a region known for its sweets,” Abdinasir said, describing the origin of his business’s name. Abdinasir was also born in Kismayo, Somalia, where his family has lived for generations.
When he was 5 or 6 years old, Abdinasir’s mother would hide the family dessert in a locked cabinet. But whenever she left home, he conspired with his siblings to find it. They put together two stools, mounted the sides, and climbed atop, reaching for the treasure and stuffing themselves before their mother returned.
For many Somalis in Minneapolis, halwa provides a similar evocation of home, a revival of old tastes and memories, now being passed down to the new generation.
“Every community, when they come here, they always have something—some sweets or fruits—that they bring from back home,” Abdinasir said. But the dessert is not just a bridge to the past; it also serves as Somalia’s contribution to the American cuisine.
“The kids that were born here, they now know halwa,” Abdinasir said.
Abdinasir finds it much easier to prepare halwa in the United States than he did in Somalia. Traditionally, Somali chefs used wooden muddlers to pound the mixture, which added hours to the process and made it exhausting. He now uses a candy-making machine, called a cooker-mixer, which hastens the process.
But even with the machines, it still takes two hours to mold one pile of halwa. And as with all great cooking, this requires the talent to recognize the right taste, the dexterity to muddle well, and a close attention to the measurement of ingredients. This complex routine accounts for why most Somalis would rather buy halwa at a bakery than make it at home.
But how can a cook recognize great halwa?
“When you cut a piece and put it between your fingers and rub it, if that doesn’t stick, then it means it’s cooked well,” Abdinasir explained.
‘When Eid time comes around, I buy more’
Abdinasir’s son Abdiweli Abdulahi, 22, has more access to halwa than his father did. For him, born and raised in the United States, the dessert serves as a link to his father’s home country, a vestige of his roots. He helps his father at the store, ushering in customers and packaging the slices.
In the afternoon, as the rain pelted Xalwo Kismayo and Grill, customers parked outside, slipped into the store, and scurried out just as quickly as they’d come, now carrying the small containers of halwa.
“When Eid time comes around, I buy more,” said Sabrina Salad, speaking in a hushed tone and with a broad smile. She buys halwa for her family of five at least twice a week. In the morning of Eid, she cuts the halwa into squares and serves them on a platter.
“I buy it every day,” said Omar Ahmed, a lanky man who seemed to be in a hurry. He only bought a pound of halwa and said it reminds him of Somalia.
Abdiweli recognized these types of customers. Halwa buyers, he explained, are mostly older Somalis trying to relive the past, even if only momentarily. The new generation appears more circumspect of the dessert due to the high levels of sugar it contains, he added.
For Ali Mohamed, who wore a jalabiya and sported a long beard, halwa is an easy way to connect with his three children. He usually buys it for birthday celebrations and his family has since come to expect it. “I even give it to my youngest son who can’t chew,” he said. Now, he was storing up for Eid, and he seemed to be ahead of everyone else.
But all these customers seemed to understand it was only a matter of time until the halwa rush. The storm was in sight.
Where to buy halwa in Minnesota, now!
If you‘re thinking of grabbing halwa for Eid, you can visit the following restaurants and shops. But be prepared for long lines—or empty shelves.
2941 Bloomington Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55407
1414 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55407
Dur Dur Bakery & Grocery
1552 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55407
818 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 5540
1713 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55407
613 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55454
519 University Ave., St. Paul, MN 55103
Metro Foods Halal Market
2016 County Rd. 42 W., Burnsville, MN 55337
725 Front St., Mankato, MN 56001