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How a halwa with a racist name became a winter favourite

Habshi halwa, made with sprouted wheat germ, is a winter delicacy in north India as well as parts of Pakistan

Habshi Halwa (Photo: Sadaf Hussain)
Habshi Halwa (Photo: Sadaf Hussain)

Purani Dilli is a melting pot of the old and new which adds to its multicultural appeal. The walled city has areas like Shahjahanabad, Chawri Bazaar, Sita Ram Bazar, Matia Mahal—and the self explanatory Khau Gali—filled with fantastic food and shops steeped in history. One such place is a sweet shop named Sheeren Bhawan in Chitli Kabar. For 70 years it has enticed people with unique halwas made with khalis (pure) ghee.

One of their prized sweets is a traditional winter delicacy called habshi halwa. It is made with sprouted wheat, milk, sugar, ghee, nuts, and spices like cardamom, saffron, kewra (rose water). The halwa is cooked for hours and the end result is an addictive sticky and crunchy texture.

But, the name habshi is problematic with a racist undertone. It is an Urdu word which refers to people of the African continent or those with a darker skin tone. This dark brown halwa has a colour similar to most Indian dishes which include mithais, gravies and sabzis. For food enthusiasts interested in history, like me, it is a mystery how a halwa acquired a politically incorrect name.

In my exploration to find the origins of habshi halwa, I visited Rampur late in 2021 which is believed to be its birthplace. I met Haris Raza, the grandson of Amanat Ulla Khan, considered to be the man who popularised habshi halwa. Amanat Bhai ki Purani Dukaan is not very difficult to find in the area Kuncha Lala Miyan in Rampur. Haris Raza said this recipe has been in the family since Nawab Raza of Rampur (1908 –1966). According to him, Nawab Sahab used to relish habshi halwa, commonly known as halwa sohan in Rampur.

Also read | Want a perfect winter dish? Try this warm bajra bhakri with jaggery

In the years before the partition, Rampur had a significant population of Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and perhaps the halwa can be traced to their kitchens. Moreover, Rohilla Pathans have samnak (wheat germ) halwa; considered to be the precursor to habshi halwa or halwa sohan.

Haris Raza shared a broad outline for the recipe without divulging too many details. Wheat grains are sifted and soaked in water for two to three days. When they sprout, they are dried and milled to make flour. Milk is added to the flour for a thick and lumpy paste. Then, it’s cooked in ghee and other ‘secret’ ingredients. The longer it’s cooked, the darker it gets and the cooking time can be anywhere between six to eight hours. There are certain signs to indicate whether habshi halwa has been done well—the ghee should not be visible on top, but it should leave an impression on the finger if you poke it, and the texture should be chewy and not stick to your teeth.

Once the halwa is ready, Harsis spreads it on a tray and garnishes it with finely chopped pistachio. Finally, he cuts the halwa into small cubes, and it's ready to be sold.

There is an unparalleled love for habshi halwa, be it in Rampur or Dilli. However, in Delhi, you will typically find that the demand for it rises in the winter, but in Rampur, it has become a year-round delicacy. Considering this halwa was perhaps introduced by Rohilla Pathans, I reached out to my friends in Karachi. Rida Bilgrami, a food and culture journalist, mentioned she grew up eating habshi halwa, and for her, this was not restricted to winter. A few of her favorite shops are Abdul Khalik Sweets, Ahmad Sweet, and Ambala Sweets in Karachi.

Bilal Hasan, a Karachi-based doctor and culture writer, says while growing up when they journeyed from Karachi to Lahore and crossed Multan via train, they’d always get boxes of habshi halwa when it halted for a few minutes in Multan. Now, his favourite shop for habshi halwa is Rewri in Multan.

When my brother was getting married in Delhi, I ensured that instead of giving boxes of laddoos to guests, we had habshi halwa. I was told while it was a novelty for me, it’s an age-old tradition for Rampuris. Tarana Hussain Khan, author of The Begum and the Dastan, says in Rampur, boxes of habshi halwa would be distributed to the groom’s family and guests after the nikah.

Be it Rampur, Purani Dilli, Karachi, or Multan, habshi halwa finds a sweet spot in weddings and festivals as well as qualifies to be a winter indulgence.

Where to find habshi halwa in Old Delhi: 

1. Sheeren Bhawan, Chitli Kabar, Old Delhi
2. Kallan Sweets, Matia Mahal, Old Delhi
3. Phool Singh Doodh Wale, Arya Samaj Gali, Sita Ram Bazaar, Old Delhi
4. Mohammad Hanif Dairy, Kucha Pandit Rd, Lal Kuan Bazar, Old Delhi

Also read | The many ways to warm up with paya this winter

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