Say Hello To Halwa

It’s starting to get pretty cold here in Rohtak, and ’tis the season for some hearty comfort food. And for someone with a sweet tooth, nothing shouts comfort food like the good old halwa. Although variants of halwa (or halua as we Bongs would call it) exist back home as well, it is a very North Indian thing, and the abundance of ghee, sugar and dry fruit makes perfect sense in the context of the freezing North Indian winters.

Duniya ke is chidiaghar mein tarah tarah ka jalwa, mile kisi ko sookhi roti kisi ko poori halwa (Courtesy : Shemaroo)

The halwa originated during the time of the Ottoman Turks, when it was composed of just starch, fat and sweetener. In fact, the word originated from the Arabic “Hulw” meaning sweet. It probably reached India during the time of the Islamic invasions in the middle of the previous millennium, and subsequently spread far and wide throughout the nation.

It is hard to find a proper definition for halwa, but I guess it could include any dish that follows the basic formula of main ingredient plus liquid (which could be water or milk) plus sugar, along with a few crucial additions. There are a lot of halwas out there, but I guess almost all of them can be divided into three major groups based on the main ingredient, which can be a flour, a lentil, or a vegetable.

There are a lot of flour-based halwas out there, like the cornflour-based Karachi halwa which despite its appearance, follows the basic halwa formula. Other examples include the besan halwa and the atta-based kada prasad, a staple prasad of Gurudwaras. In both the besan and atta based halwas, a major flavour note comes from cooking the flour low and slow in ghee till it goes brown and nutty, the exact principle used for the most commonly made halwa in Bengali kitchens.

Mishti sooji with doodh cha (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

The form of halwa most commonly made in Bengali households is probably the sooji halwa. We call it mishti sooji or sweet semolina, to distinguish it from the savoury or jhaal sooji, our version of the upma. Mishti sooji in Bengal usually tends to be on the drier side, with a high sooji to milk ratio, resulting in delicious rock-like chunks, soaked in ghee and scented with cardamom.

Increase the proportion of milk and the tasty nuggets disintegrate into a thick, porridge-like consistency, accented with cashews and raisins. This is the normal consistency for the North Indian sheera, thick and eaten with a spoon. Both mishti sooji and sheera have their own textural charms, but when it comes to flavour, all halwas boil down to two common ingredients.

The two flavours which tie all vartieties of halwa together are green cardamom, with its “citrus, eucalyptus and woody-floral qualities”, and the intense flavour of ghee. It is also the ghee which excludes dishes like payesh and phirni from the halwa family, since the predominant flavour in these dishes comes from the milk and if you’re using it, jaggery. Good ghee and slow browning are the two major pillars on which a good halwa stands.

Moong dal halwa, drenched in ghee

Our second category of halwas are made from pureed lentils or dal, a good example being the chana dal halwa. The quintessential lentil halwa however, is the one made using moong dal. Depending on the amount of liquid, it can be smooth and creamy, or dry and slightly sandy. Like all halwas, these too can have the addition of dry fruits like cashews, almonds and raisins which provides another element of texture and flavour.

Moving on now, to the final category of vegetable-based halwas. We’ve already done an entire article on vegetables in dessert, where we talked about the use of vegetables with a high-sugar content, like gourd (lauki), beetroot (chukandar) and sweet potato (shakarkand) in making halwa. One common element of all vegetable halwas is the use of milk instead of water, unlike the flour and lentil based halwas which usually tend to use water, though the mishti sooji in our house was always made with milk.

The milk in a veggie halwa is used in two forms, liquid milk and khoya, the latter referring to dried milk solids, the base for sweets like kalakand and gulab jamun. Khoya can take some time and effort to make, but a quick cheat is to use milk powder and a touch of milk to create a substitute that works just fine. When it comes to veggie halwas, there is one variety which reigns supreme.

Gajar ka halwa

India’s answer to the carrot cake, gajar ka halwa is probably one of the most indulgent desserts one can make using a vegetable. Rich and creamy, with the texture of grated carrots, the flavour of ghee and the unmistakable accent of dry fruits, the charm of a warm bowl of gajar ka halwa is truly hard to resist. Apart from the dominant dairy note, the subtle note of cardamom and the unmistakable presence of ghee are what make a good gajar ka halwa what it is.

About a month ago, a group of colleagues decided to make a quick weekend getaway to Nainital. It had been a while since I had taken a trip, and it was a welcome respite. To reach there, we had to board a night bus from Old Delhi. We reached Delhi a few hours early so that we could be done with dinner, after which we stopped at a halwa shop to pack some gajar ka halwa for the trip.

For the first time I realized just how pivotal a role ghee plays in elevating a halwa. The rich creamy notes of the khoya, the textures of almond and pistachio, the slightly warm halwa in the slightly chilly night of Delhi; it was the perfect example of seamless juxtaposition of food and ambience. A warm bowl of delicious halwa is the gastronomic equivalent of a warm hug in the cold winters, which reminds me of a seasonal jazz classic:

The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing,

But I can weather the storm;

What do I care how much it may storm,

I’ve got my love to keep me warm.

Courtesy : Indian Food Critic

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