The first – and possibly only – Indian dessert my mother cooked for my father when they settled into their home in Delhi, as a young couple with two toddlers, was gajar ka halwa. Gajar ka halwa is a slow-cooked north Indian dessert of grated carrots, simmered in milk, ghee, and a generous portion of refined sugar. The end product, which you will find in many north Indian homes, is an orange-hued, textured, and sweet dessert.
It’s a different matter that my mother cooked enough halwa to feed at least twenty hungry people. You can’t really cook small quantities of gajar ka halwa, and since my father refused to eat any after the first serving, unsuspecting guests had to eat the halwa for weeks on end. But that’s a story for another day.
Over a decade, I have realised that gajar ka halwa is one of the most popular desserts in north Indian homes, especially in Delhi where I live, across all sections of society. The three main ingredients are easy to find, not particularly expensive, and the halwa itself is a perfectly warm dessert for Delhi’s frigid winters.
Who would think that we have the Dutch to thank for this wonder! It’s a tenuous connection, but orange carrots were created in the seventeenth century, when Dutch farmers decided to pay tribute to William of Orange. Carrots soon found their way to Punjab through Afghanistan and the rest, as they say, is history.
Women cooked gajar ka halwa for hours on coal stoves, waiting for the grated carrot to cook through while the milk it was cooking in reduced to less than half its quantity. Of course, now people use khoya instead of milk to save time.
While I was scripting a food show on the unique foods of India, I discovered that the orange gajar ka halwa isn’t the only variety available.There’s a less common white version which is available at a century-old shop in Old Delhi called Sheeren Bhawan. Made from white carrots sourced from Ghaziabad, this version is available only between mid-December and mid- February. The grated white carrots do not shrink and are slightly less sweet – giving the halwa a slightly more nuanced look and taste.
Lucknow, the city of great food, serves another version, which is as tasty and, again, less sweet. The black carrot halwa, which hasn’t been replicated in Delhi – although I have seen mountains of black carrots in the vegetable mandi – is a less grainy and earthier version which lends itself very well to the realm of desserts.
The grated carrots are cooked with milk – no shortcuts involving khoya here – sugar, and ghee to create a deep purple dessert which would appeal to anyone who prefers less sugar and more flavour.
Halwas are extremely common in North India and sometimes in the South, but are cooked less frequently in East or West India. Although Bengal has a cholar dal halwa, I’ve only ever heard of it and never tasted it in all these decades. In The Illustrated Foods of India, food historian KT Achaya writes: “In India, it [halwa] connotes softly firm desserts made from a range of materials: wheat flour, wheat grits, vermicelli, Bengal gram flour, fruits like banana and date, nuts like almond, and vegetables like pumpkins and dates.” But this definition doesn’t include all the halwas you can find in India.
Far removed from these, there are some non-vegetarian variants such as gosht halwa and ande ka halwa which are worth mentioning.
Giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘sweet meat’, the gosht halwa is a translucent, succulent dessert soaked in ghee and cooked with tender lamb mince.The recipe is referred to in old Persian recipe books, and khansamas who worked in Old Delhi homes have recreated the dish from memory, turning out a delightful dessert prepared by cooking meat for hours by stirring it with milk and sugar till it amalgamates into a thick halwa which is then flavoured with saffron and cardamom.This preparation is supposed to have originated in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. Ande ka halwa, or egg halwa, is made by cracking eggs into a pan with ghee, milk, sugar, and dried fruits.The mixture is cooked until a thick custard forms, which is then sprinkled with saffron.
Most Indian halwas, however, use grains, such as the suji halwa and atta halwa. For example, in Gujarat, you get the mohanlal, a halwa made of besan or chickpea flour. Like many desserts, it is very common to serve halwa during celebrations or rituals. Kada prasad is a wheat halwa which the Sikh community serves at baptisms, marriages, and cremations.
The jauzi halwa of Lucknow is made with almonds, milk, and saffron, and is supposed to help build immunity. In Karnataka, kesari bhat is prepared by cooking wheat semolina or suji in ghee, and then with saffron and sugar.
There’s a quaint anecdote attached to the Sindhi community’s Karachi halwa – a chewy halwa which looks more like a gelatinous fudge than halwa. Following the Partition, the nomenclature referring to the origins of the dessert suddenly became a bone of contention. Many renamed it Bombay halwa, primarily because Bombay and Karachi had flourished as twin port cities, and most migrants from Karachi settled in Bombay.
In Delhi, however, the halwa kept being referred to as Karachi halwa and remains extremely popular as a gift because of its long shelf life. In fact, there’s a bureaucratic tradition of the Indian finance minister preparing and offering halwa to their finance ministry colleagues before presenting the budget. Which might also explain the mish-mash we are usually served hot in the guise of the budget.
So where did halwa come to India from? The word “halwa” comes from the Arabic word “hulw”, which means sweet, and “when first used in English denoted a Turkish confection of ground sesame seeds and honey”, according to Achaya. That the dish came to India via trade routes is underlined by the fact that two important port cities – Karachi and Kozhikode – have their own distinct version of the halwa.
The thirteenth-century Arabic text, Kitab al-Tabikh, written by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan Ibn al-Karim, who had compiled a recipe book of Arabic dishes, is the first known text to mention halwa.The text mentions eight different varieties of halwa along with each of their recipes.
The Ain-i-Akbari, written in the sixteenth century by Akbar’s court historian, Abul Fazl, mentions halwa as one of the dishes prepared for Akbar as part of the repertoire of dishes served during safiyana – the days during which Akbar abstained from meat. According to Edward Terry, Thomas Roe’s chaplain, halwa was eaten by the poorer classes of Muslims at breakfast, along with naan, keema, sheer brinji, and dried fruits.
According to the quarterly Repast, and many food historians, including Rana Safvi, the origins of halwa have been repeatedly traced back to Arabia. Which might explain why mithai makers in India are referred to as “halwais”. Safvi refers to Guzishta Lucknow by Abdul Halim Sharar, who lived in Lucknow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“In Guzishta Lucknow, Sharar writes that taking the name into consideration, halwa originated in Arabic lands and came to India via Persia.” There is no certainty though, of the exact period when halwa entered Indian kitchens. The original Middle Eastern dessert was supposedly made from a paste of dates and milk.
The kitchens of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, are said to have had a special sweets section called The Helvahane or The Dessert and Candy Room.
According to Chicago-based food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, the author of Feasts and Fasts, “halwa arrived in India with the advent of the Delhi Sultanate, gaining popularity from the early thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth century.” Nimatnama, a medieval cookbook written for the Sultan of Malwa in 1500, mentions the halwa and its recipe.
The theories are as many as the varieties of halwa found in India. Irrespective of its origins, it is fair to say that halwa is one of the most versatile of Indian desserts which seems to have found favour and flavour unique to each of the regions in which it can be found.
Excerpted with permission from The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts, Rajyasree Sen, Aleph Book Company.