Though I’m Bengali with a sweet tooth that would put an elephant to shame, I don't cook desserts that often. One of my early attempts at making shujir halwa – a simple matter of combining semolina, milk and sugar (or so I thought) – had led to much embarrassment. Blissfully ignorant of the semolina-milk ratio and having never been told to roast the semolina first, I ventured forth and multiplied. Not so much time later, after poured every packet of milk at home into the attempt, I was left with five litres of what the unkind would describe as halwa-flavoured fevicol.
That is now behind me, and if people remain stuck to one of my halwas nowadays the reasons are entirely more pleasant. Having cracked the suji code, I went through a whole halwa phase with dal, besan, and the rockstar of halwas – gajar. Then, having conquered the impossible, I gave it up a decade ago and except for the occasional foray remained largely halwa-free.
One day, a hard days’ work safely under my belt I go to visit Sunanda and come face to face with her most recent purchase – a substantial quantity of carrots that she was was convinced I would turn into a halwa. In a touching gesture of faith, she had even grated them for me.
Ok, I figure, its not so hard. I haven’t done it for a decade but no one forgets. Khoya, ghee, cashews, sugar, some cardamom, optionally a little saffron and we’d be in the game.
“We might not have saffron” – she says.
No one to be fazed, I decide to start by roasting the cashews.
“Hmm, you know, there may be no cashews either. I don’t like them that much anyway”
Ok no garnish. Still manageable. Lets start with heating the ghee then.
“Ghee?” she says, “I don’t think we use ghee at all”.
“What about khoya?”
“No! What is that anyway?”
“Milk?” I could boil it down to khoya, I figured.
“Hmm, I dont think we have any milk either. I didn’t realize gajar halwa was so complicated!”
Five minutes of conversation later, it strikes me. Armed only with grated carrots and sugar (I hadn’t even asked about the sugar yet), I was expected to beat the pants off Haldirams’ at the halwa sweepstakes. This was the stone soup story, in reverse.
“Not to worry, sweets” I ventured bravely, “we’ll just go and buy everything”.
Except that its now nearly eleven in the night - what the unkind will call ‘late’. Unshuttered grocery stores (or dairies, or hypermarkets) are not exactly screaming welcome all over Bandra West at this time. Or anywhere in Mumbai, for that matter. We could have swum the sea and hit Dubai to see if things were open, but I decided to be difficult and use my ingenuity instead.
Now gajar halwa can be prepared in many ways, but my favourite was to cook the gajar in ghee and sugar till done, and add khoya (which, for those still stuck to the Mohd. Rafi song from the title, is actually milk thickened till dry. Mumbaikars wanting to be different can call it mawa). This simmering makes for a wonderful, strong carrot taste and a nice dark colour from the sugar, while the khoya adds the dairy twist and contrasting creaminess. The other choice is to simmer the carrots in milk, which I’ve always thought leads to soggy, textureless carrot pudding more worthy of the English than the Marwaris.
The first hurdle was ghee but Pali Market’s local medicine shop had ghee, right next to the heart pills. Sugar and cardamom appeared from the deep recesses of a sideboard. Which, one roundtrip of Bandra-Khar and two closed dairies later, still left me with the khoya problem.
And that’s where it helps to stand in the path of a brainwave. Right next to the medicine shop was Punjab Sweet House. I know what you’re thinking but no, they didn’t have gajar halwa . Nor did they have mawa, but they did have peda and kalakand, which you might realize, is made with khoya. Peda is fine khoya, while kalakand is based on a grainy, rich khoya. I plumped for the kalakand – looked better, tasted better and worst case would be adequate consolation if the halwaing failed utterly.
Thus got made a perfectly good halwa. Well, I exaggerate - it wasn’t perfect. Kalakand isn’t quite mawa and the odd cashew definitely adds something but still, it tasted great.
Since this is a food blog, I figured a quick brief of the recipe would not be out of place. Gajar halwa is one of those recipes simple and short enough to be squeezed into a haiku – simmer the grated carrots in dollops of ghee and sugar till the ghee separates out completely (takes a while). Let it cool, crumble in generous quantities of mawa, toss in a handful of roasted cashews, lean back and let the adulation sink in.
“tumko bhi kaise neend ayegi……”