For me, winter is synonymous with gajar ka halwa, an Indian confection made of grated carrots cooked in slowly simmering milk. Sugar is added in the end to enhance the taste, a glug of ghee and cardamoms for fragrance and the much needed warmth during the cold season.
Made with fresh red carrots that are only available during winters in India, gajar halwa is an emotion for many like me. With the onset of fog and frost, the best varieties of carrots show up in the markets along with other delicious produce. Another variant of the gajar halwa is made with black carrots, a dessert much sought after at homes and the many Indian weddings that happen at this time of the year. Packed with the wholesomeness of milk, nutrients of carrots and good fats of ghee and nuts, gajar halwa emanates the feeling of fullness of the soul.
Although more popular in north India, this dessert is made almost everywhere in India, or at least most parts of the subcontinent. Originally derived from the Turkish word hulw (meaning sweet), halwa entered India in the north and the south through the port cities of Karachi and Kozhikode respectively by the way of trade routes, and became so popular that Indian confectioners are still called halwais. It's one dessert that's ubiquitous in the Indian sweet repertoire and there are multiple main ingredients available to make the sweet treats like grains (semolina, wheat), vegetables (carrots, gourds, pumpkin), nuts (almonds, walnuts) and even meat or eggs.
Acclaimed writer and historian, Rana Safvi cites the book, Guzishta Lucknow (Lucknow, the last phase of an Oriental Culture) by Abdul Sharar and mentions in this Indian Express article, “In Guzishta Lucknow, Sharar writes that taking the name into consideration, halwa originated in Arabic lands and came to India via Persia.” It is also believed that the Ottoman king, Suleiman the Magnificent was a keen halwa enthusiast, and the halwa perfected in the Ottoman empire's kitchen arrived in India as a dried, grainy mush of perhaps sesame seeds and honey. This was rehydrated with rosewater, sugar and ground pistachios to create a textured mixture of ghee and sugar in India.
I'm not big on Indian mithai. If you've been following me for a while, you'd know. However, there are a few Indian sweets that I adore, and gajar halwa is one of them. What appeals to me most is how so few ingredients cook into such a marvelous dessert that's wholesome and is finger-licking good. SO GOOD! Growing up, I and my elder sister M were always mother's helping hands to grate the carrots. I hardly cooked anything in the kitchen when I lived with my parents, but this I did happily! That saccharine smell of cardamoms and carrots with a hint of ghee was everything delightful on brumal evenings during my childhood. Mother made it twice, even thrice a month during winter and most of it got over in one sitting. While everyone usually enjoys this halwa warm, I didn't mind a bit of the cold halwa the next morning. As a hot savoury paratha arrived on my breakfast plate, I scooped the remnants of the halwa from the dish and slathered on the paratha. Rolled and bit into the wrap of scrumptiousness!
In India, this halwa is made with either red or purple carrots, and it was usually the red one at my place. I haven't been able to find red carrots in Canada so far. Perhaps someday that miracle will happen. Since I already compromise on the type of carrot here, I'm extremely unyielding on the method of preparing it. I know some who advise cooking the carrots for a few minutes in the pressure cooker or doing the entire process in the instant pot, but I follow the same old school method as my mom. No compromise on the time it takes or the effort involved! In a world where everything is oriented to the click of a button, where trends come and go in seconds and things change every other day, I prefer somethings to remain as they're. A slow cooked gajar halwa is a reminder of the slower simpler life we tend to forget these days, and I hold it dear with every beat of my heart.
Make this labour of love and enjoy warm servings right after it's off the stove. You can also make it a day in advance if you're hosting a party and would like to serve this as dessert. Just heat it well before serving.
A tasty gajar halwa is the result of carrots cooked in milk over an extended period of time. There's no shortcut to it. The more the milk evaporates, the more milk solids are formed and absorbed into the halwa, and nicer is the taste.
Always use the thicker side of the grater to grate your carrots. Very thinly grated carrots do not yield a good texture in the halwa and turn too pulpy and mashed.
Do not use a lot of fat in gajar halwa as it overpowers the taste of the carrots. However, adding a small amount of ghee is imperative for the shelf life of the halwa as well as taste.
A pinch of salt in the end helps to balance the sweetness of the halwa and brings all the flavours together. Also, add sugar only at the very last stage when the milk has been absorbed and the carrots are cooked fully. If you add sugar before the carrots are cooked, they won't cook through once sugar enters the pan!
Most importantly, pay attention to the halwa when the milk has mostly evaporated. At this stage it's important to stir intermittently to prevent anything from burning.
1 kg red or orange carrots (If using orange carrots, choose the varieties that are sweeter)
1.25 liter milk (I used 2%)
1 cup sugar (I use small grained golden sugar)
3 tbsp ghee
2-3 green cardamoms crushed
1/2 tsp cardamom powder
3-4 tbsp nuts of your choice (I used cashews and flaked almonds)
1 tbsp raisins (optional)
1/4 tsp saffron strands (optional)
To make it vegan, you can use a plant based milk like almond or cashew milk. Coconut or oat milk tend to impart their own flavour in this halwa which is not ideal. You can replace the ghee with a neutral oil. It won't taste the same, but still flavourful.
Wash and peel the carrots. Now grate the carrots using the thicker side of the grater.
Add milk to a heavy bottom pan and put it on medium-high heat. Once the milk comes to a full boil reduce the heat and let the milk simmer. Keep stirring often in between to prevent milk from sticking and burning.
Meanwhile, in another pan or Dutch oven, heat 1 tbsp ghee and add the crushed cardamoms. Once you can smell the aroma, add the grated carrot and sauté to let the moisture from the carrot out. This will take around 10-15 minutes.
At this stage, there are 2 options: Either transfer the sautéed and moisture-evaporated carrots into the simmering milk or pour the simmering milk into the sautéed carrots. Whichever pan has a thicker heavier bottom, use that pan from this step onwards. I use a heavy bottom vessel for boiling the milk and pour it into the Dutch oven where I sauté the carrots.
Now, cook the carrots in the simmering milk on medium heat until the milk completely evaporates - that's the goal! As the milk evaporates and forms solids, the carrots get cooked and absorb the milk. This will take 45 to 50 minutes. To ensure that the carrots are completely cooked through, I close the lid of the pan and cook on medium low heat for about 10 minutes, and then cook on medium heat with lid open till the end by stirring the mixture once in a while and scrapping the solidified milk sticking to the sides of the pan and mixing everything.
Meanwhile, in a small pan add the remaining ghee and place on medium heat. Add the nuts and raisins and lightly roast. Sprinkle the saffron on top if using. Switch off heat and keep aside.
Once you see the milk almost evaporated, add the sugar and stir continuously for 3-4 minutes on medium heat. As soon as you add sugar, the halwa will thin out but as the sugar gets cooked and assimilated, it will thicken again. So stir and combine well! This will take about 15 - 20 minutes.
Add the cardamom powder along with the fried nuts, raisins, ghee and saffron into the halwa, and continue stirring everything. Ensure that the halwa does not dry out too much but all the milk is evaporated and carrots are cooked through. Add a tiny pinch of salt and stir to combine again.
Turn off heat and serve the gajar halwa warm!