A heart for halwa
With simple sooji, weighty wheat or moong ki dal, the classic Indian dessert lends itself to every hungry occasion
One winter holiday, as a kid in my grandmother’s home, I wandered into her kitchen to find she was stirring a large kadhai. She was making halwa, wonderful sooji halwa, fragrant and billowing, roasting it in ghee and stirring it furiously to remove all lumps. Some raisins sat on the counter next to her, plump and bursting in a katori of warm water, ready to be chucked in. “Today is ‘bada din’, (big day) so I’m making halwa," she informed me chattily. My staunchly Hindu grandmother was making halwa (as she did every year) to celebrate Christmas.
This is why I wouldn’t rewrite anything in my childhood. Because no matter what else went down when I was a kid, there were always weird and wonderful things that popped up unexpectedly, like wildflowers on a grassy hillside. There was always my family’s casual embrace of reasons to celebrate. (And celebrate the only way it matters. With food.) And most importantly, in my childhood, there was my nani’s halwa.
She was an inspired cook, so everything she made was wonderful. But her halwa was the stuff of dreams— conjured up at the drop of a hat for celebrations and commiserations, on a cold day to eat as breakfast and on a rainy day to eat with pakoras. Always fragrant and light, bursting with simple flavour and goodness, it was heaven in a katori. Though it was strictly a four ingredient affair – sooji (or atta), ghee, sugar and some raisins – it was transcendental. She had two secrets to making it: One was first dry-roasting the atta or the sooji before adding the ghee. And the other was adding a small amount of besan to the mix which, she claimed, made it taste earthier and more mellow. (Ok, so it was technically a five-ingredient halwa, but since she always kept the besan bit secret, we refer to it as the four-ingredient halwa.)
Years later, when I encountered my mother-in-law’s version of sooji halwa, I realized that it was a completely different animal to my nani’s. Absolutely delicious in its own right, it was a paler, richer offering, resplendent with slivered almonds, buxom with ghee and flavour. Her standard proportion of one cup of ghee, and one each of sugar and sooji would have horrified my frugal grandmother, who would have considered it a criminal waste of ghee to have it swimming lazily along the sides of any dish she cooked. But she would have been the first to admit that using ghee to literally confit the grains adds a depth of flavour and taste and a certain melty texture to the halwa that mere dry roasting and drizzling with ghee can never hope to achieve.
That same melt-in-the-mouth quality is what makes “kadha prashad"—the gurudwara halwa —so addictive. This was something I adored so much in childhood that I was a gurudwara groupie, hanging around the innards of the gurdwara like a hopeful stray, hoping to be chucked some kadha prashad at regular intervals. Always made with atta, never sooji, and robust amounts of ghee, there is something about this, some secret ingredient that makes it impossible to replicate at home, some combination of piety, peace, gleaming floors, melodious beautiful gurbani streaming overhead and the presence of vast hirsuteness that domestic kitchens can never ever achieve. Even today, a ghee-slicked palmful of kadha prashad can lift the darkest clouds in my day and simultaneously reduce me to a blubbering wreck.
That’s the thing about atta or sooji halwa. It’s the taste of childhood, of quiet celebration, of marking auspicious times, it’s the taste of a home-made happy, even if just for a moment. That’s why these halwas can never be eaten in restaurants or banquets, because they aren’t meant to be grand, they are meant to be comforting and contemplative. If they are made the way they should be, then you can contemplate infinity when you eat them, but that’s a different sort of grand we’re talking of. These are the halwas you think of when the storm clouds gather and it looks like the rain will come down in sheets. These are the tastes that you accessorize with old pyjamas and warm slippers – but there are others that sit better with brocades and bandgalas.
Those are the set of halwas belonging to the same family, but a different genus and species. These are halwas that are firmly on the other side of the tracks: moong ki dal ka halwa, besan halwa, badaam ka halwa etc. These are different in every way — richer in mouthfeel, resplendent with nuts and ghee and requiring hours and hours of stirring and roasting over a slow flame.
First, the moong ki dal ka halwa, staple of North Indian winter weddings and banquets and purveyed in the finer mithai shops everywhere. Nutty, rich, flavourful and earthy, it’s interesting how schizophrenic this halwa is, the exact molecular opposite of its main ingredient, the pale light moong ki dal that is routinely fed to patients and convalescents. But in this avatar it is as far removed from that as it is possible to be, clearly a Cinderella taken from the hearth to the ball. This is special occasion food, requiring advance notice, a battalion of house elves willing to spend unhurried hours at a stove and a 30 point cholesterol leap worth of ghee to reach its full potential. This is my mother’s favourite halwa, she is well-known in her corner of the world for attacking it fearlessly wherever she encounters it.
Similarly the besan halwa, which needs the vigilant eye of the former East German secret police to be able to roast properly. There’s a lot going on here, ghee heated to smoking point, milk added to it and then besan added to this hissing, spluttering mix and slow roasted. Sugar syrup is added after a lifetime of patient roasting which, when absorbed, yields the prize. There is something about this process and this dish that is ultra-sensitive to neglect of any sort. If you look away for an instant, it will choose that precise moment to get spitefully burnt and taste scorched forever. However, the reward for vigilant loving care is a taste that is distinct and unique, that halwa connoisseurs the world over will give their right arm for. A friend of mine makes this now and again when she has a few days and some elbow grease to spare.
I also have another friend who calls me over every Eid and feeds us kababs and biryani and a small swimming pool sized bowl of badaam halwa, which she makes from scratch. (Well from badaams, actually, but you know what I mean.) And both these halwas are rich and nutty and divine and so utterly sinful that even glancing fearfully in their direction can make you put on weight. Which is why I am very disciplined about polishing off vast amounts of both, but with my eyes firmly closed.
And finally to complete the halwa family, is the other genus, the vegetable halwas. We all know people who swear by kaddu halwas and lauki halwas and such people must always be allowed to swear by them because the world is large enough to hold every sort of lunatic fringe (including those who believe that broiler chicken is anything other than styrofoam melted down and those who believe that lauki and kaddu are stellar halwa ingredients). The other day I also came across this recipe for a zucchini halwa cooked in almond milk; it had got a five star rating from many enthusiastic readers. As far as I am concerned, this is one more definition of kalyug, when a dish born out of joy and exuberance is made to wear sackcloth and ashes but, if this floats your boat, more power to your vegan vessel, far be it from me to judge.
But, no matter what your views on any other vegetable, it is hard to deny that the king emperor of all vegetable halwas is the world famous gaajar halwa. Grated carrot cooked in milk and cream till it becomes mooshy and melty with just sugar and powdered elaichi as flavouring. There are raisin and nut purists who walk among us and bloody battles have been known to break out between those who believe that raisins have their place in a halwa but not nuts vs those who feel the opposite and the equal opportunity eaters who believe that both are welcome. Either which way, gaajar ka halwa is something that needs both and neither to be the poster dish of the North Indian winter. This is the perfect fusion occasion dish – made at home, eaten at weddings, sold in mithai shops – everyone has a recipe and mostly everyone has a taste for it.
I used to love gaajar ka halwa when I was young. My mother would make a fantastic version in which she pressure cooked the carrots with just milk and then cooked that down. Skipping the cream really lightened up the halwa so I could eat combine harvester loads of it at one sitting. When she wanted to make it slightly more mellow, she would roast this basic starter halwa again on a heavy bottomed iron tava with a teaspoon of ghee. This suffused the halwa with the wonderful ghee aroma and the slow heat reaching out in lazy licks through the heavy bottomed tava made the milk solids in it caramelize and turn gooey and chewy and wonderful in your mouth. I’ve eaten my way joyously through several mountains of this tava-roasted Halwa 102 every year too, every spoonful an ode to joy.
However, for the last few years, this has changed. I have clearly exceeded the critical amount of gaajar halwa that is possible for one person to consume in one lifetime because I can’t seem to approach it with anything nearing my earlier enthusiasm. This is one of the great food-related tragedies of my life. As someone who has always equated halwas with wellbeing and small happinesses, with joy and comfort, with family and celebration, having one of the pillars of this belief snatched away from me when I am not yet past the hump of middle age is a horrible setback. Those of you who feel like you have THE recipe to help me get my gaajar ka halwa mojo back, or have another halwa (no, I’ll skip the zucchini lauki kaddu brigade if you don’t mind please) which you feel will help offset this hideous loss, please help. Send recipes, boxes of, or google maps pins to reach homes of best practices followers of making the halwas you are recommending – think of it as your noble effort to help me alleviate my suffering.
And as a toast to my childhood memories, I’ve decided I’m going to follow my nani’s example. Every month, I will choose a reason or a day to celebrate something I typically wouldn’t. I will make a halwa, eat a halwa, share a halwa with someone I wouldn’t generally reach out to. Even if nothing else changes, I reckon I will be a lot happier with halwa inside me than not.
What better way to approach a new year? So with or without a halwa in the mix, have a joyous 2017!