“Come on, let’s get to work,” my father would implore, unloading a bag full of carrots. After my grandmother passed on, my parents were very keen that the matriarch’s strictures on who was allowed into the kitchen be set aside at the earliest. The change of rules seemed fine to me and my sister. The kitchen was a place for new adventures — the masalas, oils, and kitchen our new playmates. Except during the biting cold winter days, when all we wanted to do was slurp warm soup in the comfort of our razais. My parents, however, made sure that there was no let-up in the new regime.
In a jiffy, my sister and I would overcome our weather-induced reluctance. Much of our zest also owed to the fact that we had been invited to participate in making our favourite winter dessert — gajar ka halwa. “Be gentle with the carrots. They must be grated lightly,” mother would issue directions. While we were at work with the knives and peelers, the kitchen exuded a milky aroma. The grated vegetables soon joined the milk bubbling away on the stove. Stirring the mixture continuously, mother would ask us to spoon in a large cup or two of sugar.
The rest of the procedure was a test in patience. It was difficult to keep the salivary glands from working overtime while we were taking turns to stir the mixture. It would be more than an hour before the milk evaporated. It was then time to add dollops of cream to the pudding that was beginning to turn resplendent.
Halwa comes from an Arabic word which, according to food historian KT Achaya, “when first used in English denoted a Turkish confection of ground sesame seeds and honey”. “In India, it 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,” Achaya writes in The Illustrated Foods of India (2009). In Feasts and Fasts (2014), food historian Colleen Taylor Sen traces the gajar ka halwa to the reign of the 14th century ruler, Mohammad Bin Tughlak.
Stories of the origin of this delectable winter dish are, however, varied. Pakistani food writer Bisma Timrizi believes that the delicacy came into its own during Mughal times. “Legend has it that the Sikhs from Punjab introduced it to the house of the Mughals. The emperors enjoyed its vibrant colour, flowery aroma, and slightly chewy texture, and it gained popularity far and wide, spreading sweetness throughout the empire,” she writes in a 2014 article in the Dawn. Commerce imparted its own twist of flavour. Timrizi points out that the empire’s trade with the European world led to the development of the orange carrot in Holland, a mutation of its original purple version that was found in Afghanistan. “The cooks in the subcontinent liked the new imported carrot and the sweetness that came with it, and since it was an era when new cuisines were being developed by expert chefs and connoisseurs, this kind of carrot seemed to be of a perfect variety to be tried as the main ingredient in the halwa, with sugar, milk and butter, sans the flour and nuts,” she notes.
At our home, however, the red carrots served just fine. The gajar ka halwa did acquire a nutty texture. Once the milk, carrot, sugar and cream mixture had cooled, mother would take sprinkle thin slivers of almonds. There were raisins too. The more the merrier, she would say, lavishing us with the dessert.