A few years ago, I discovered Lucknow’s black gajar halwa the old fashioned way: serendipitously while strolling around the city. After a visit to Rahim Nihari – to dine on the restaurant’s incredible paya, trotters and flaky kulcha – I stumbled out, satiated, and walked down Phool Wali Gali in Chowk. To my left was the beautiful Tehsin Masjid, a 200-year-old mosque, built by a high-ranking noble in the Nawab of Awadh’s administration. Just outside was Rahmat Ali’s sweet shop. It was in this hole-in-the-wall establishment that I discovered the existence of black carrots, which the people of Lucknow grate and turn into a halwa during the winter.
The halwa was lovely. Slightly warm, it was markedly less sweet than the red carrot halwas I had eaten. The black carrots gave it an earthy taste, which was just a bit astringent on the tongue. It also had no khoya, a common confectionery ingredient across India, which is made by simmering full-fat milk for hours until the moisture evaporates, leaving behind the milk solids. Amir Ali, the owner of Rahmat Ali, had some strong views on the mass use of this ingredient: “It is a sign of laziness,” he said. “The real method is to use milk and reduce that. Since that takes time, people use a shortcut: khoya.”
The Arabic-origin word halwa means a variety of things across West and Central Asia. In India, though, it has always referred to a lightly spiced, sweet pudding cooked in milk. The red carrot halwa is probably the most famous example of the dish, although several variants – with semolina, mung, chickpea, even egg – exist across the subcontinent.
In this panoply, the black carrot halwa is rare. Black carrots are grown in only a few places in North India. Even in Lucknow – arguably the world capital of this dessert – this halwa is not very well known. The few shops that do sell it are concentrated in the old city. In spite of – or maybe because of – this, the city’s older residents speak of fond associations with the sweet. “Kali gajar ka halwa was cooked in our house a lot when we were children,” said historian Rana Safvi, who grew up in Lucknow. Saad Rizvi, a restaurateur who also runs his own catering business, said it was a wedding season favourite: “At a shaadi, old Lucknow-walahs look for special sweets like kali gajar ka halwa.”
The wedding season in Lucknow, as it so happens, falls during peak winter. In the Chaupatiyan neighbourhood, black carrot halwai Shiv Narayan Tiwari aka Tayya maharaj tells me that the sweet is intimately linked to the cold. “Jitna sardi hoi, utna biki,” he explained in Awadhi. The colder it gets, the more the halwa is sold. Tiwari explains this correlation using the “garam taseer” or warming effect of black carrots. Food cultures across India have various interpretations for foods that are hot or cold. The multiple meanings of hot in this context usually refer to something that is physically warming – as Tiwari claims black carrots are – or anything that is difficult to digest. More advanced versions of this theory go on to link emotions, ranging from anger to sexual desire, with the food you eat.
Tiwari takes me to his house, which is right at the back of his shop, and shows me a wicker basket full of black carrots. Squat and deep purple, the vegetable appears disquietingly alien after a lifetime of cheery red and orange carrots.
Ironically though, black/purple carrots were the first carrots humans managed to grow – a feat accomplished not that far from Awadh, in Afghanistan. The carrots were incredibly high in anthocyanin, which gave them their dark colour – a pigment also present in other similarly coloured foods like brinjals and blackcurrants. Black carrots were, for the longest time, the only carrots humans knew of. So when Roman Emperor Caligula, frequently portrayed in history as a sadist tyrant, fed carrots to his Senate in the hope of sparking off an orgy (the root vegetable was thought to be an aphrodisiac due to its somewhat phallic shape), they were probably similar to the ones stocked in Tiwari’s house.
By the turn of the first millennium, writes the monomaniacally thorough World Carrot Museum, red and yellow mutant variations were bred from the original black. The red version is India’s most common cultivar, simply called “desi gajar” or local carrot in Hindi and Urdu. The West’s most common version – that I first saw in a Bugs Bunny cartoon film – appeared in the 1500s in the Netherlands, as a sweet orange cultivar that was bred from the earlier yellow ones. Orange carrots have become easier to find in India over the past few decades. They are frequently called Ooty carrots, referring to a major centre of their cultivation in India.
The black carrot fell out of favour in the West, driven at least partly by anti-anthocyanin colourism: being water soluble, its pigment often ran, staining dishes and pottages. It did survive in some places though, even if barely. In Lucknow, confectioners mention the region of Malihabad as a centre of production. Punjabis also consume black carrots in the form of kanji – a fermented drink with chopped carrots, mustard powder and ginger, believed to do wonders for digestion. Coincidentally, another black carrot fermented juice, salgam, is popular in Turkey.
Even in North India, the black carrot is rare, and its only dish – the root is not used in savoury preparations – the halwa, is scarce. Delhi, close enough to Lucknow to share language and poets, has no black carrot halwa. But, as city historian Sohail Hashmi says, Delhi has its own eccentric take on the dessert: a white carrot version. “It was very popular once upon a time,” said Hashmi. “Especially at weddings.” The red halwa only came to the city after Partition, he says, with the Punjabi refugees from Pakistan.
The white variety is now near-extinct and available commercially at very few places. One of those is Shireen Bhawan, a sweet shop in Old Delhi. Keshavanand, a cook at Shireen, is full of praise for the white carrot: he claims it does not shrink when cooked, unlike its more craven red cousin. I tasted some: it was true. The carrots held their own with a more granular mouthfeel. And like the black variant, this halwa was markedly less sweet than its red counterpart.
Which is of course not to say that the red version doesn’t taste excellent, commonplace though it might be. Winter is a time for culinary indulgence. And halwas – of any colour – are a must. To riff off from a politician who is a lovely carotene orange colour himself: make carrots grate again.