Halwa: Of taste and goodness

With mindful portioning and timing, the sweet could be one ‘helluva’ of good thing to crave for, say experts on the good old bowl of comfort.

Circa 1520: Suleiman the Magnificent’s rule begins, and with it begins another obsession: that of halwa or as 13th century Arabic Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) authored by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Karīm calls it, Hulw, meaning sweet. Legend has it that the emperor was so fond of this almost ice cream brick-like confectionary that he even set up a special kitchen with cooks who were proficient in turning a variety of ingredients – of the king’s fancy and otherwise – into a delicious Hulw. Little did the sweet-loving warrior king know that in a few years, not only would his favourite creation travel far and wide, spawning many versions including the now famous (and almost native) halwa or halva but also become a beacon of good health.

Gud ka halwa
The reasons why halwa gained so much popularity had much to do with the ease of making it.

In fact, halwa or halva, which had by then reached Indian shores courtesy the prosperous Silk and Spice Route and enterprising Arab travellers, had begun spawning its own varieties. So much so that by the time the Mughal empire reached its Magnificent Era, halwa had transformed into one of the staple sweets and could be made from just about anything, including the prized paan, mirch, and, of course, Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite – beetroot.

Such was the love for this mashed up, rich, nut-garnished sweet that it soon assumed a role as sacred offerings in various places of worship, including the kada prasad in gurudwaras. What gave it that edge? The easiness of making it, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels). Unlike other sweetmeats in the country that needed the mastery of a certain skill set, continues Chef Dewan, “halwa demanded proficiency in basic mithai techniques such as roasting, adding sweets and constantly stirring to get that smooth, shiny finish. The other ace up halwa’s sleeve was the simple ingredients. A halwa could be made of whole wheat, ghee and jaggery and even badam, and the result in both cases would be this rich, gooey bite that would instantly put a smile on your face.”

Kada prasad
The halwa became so popular in India that it became a staple sacred offering at places of worship. Such as the pictured kada prasad at gurudwaras.

But that is only one part of the fascinating story of halwa, adds Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Garam Masala), “that gained popularity not only for the easy technique or readily available ingredients that could transform into something utterly delicious; the real upscaling for halwa was done by those who adopted the technique to create some of the most unique combinations that we today consider classics, which were not just great to taste, but equally effective in their role as food that healed. One such splendid example is the aate ka halwa or kada prasad that is available in gurudwaras.”

Made simply of whole wheat flour, clarified butter, jaggery and cardamom powder, continues Chef Seth, “the simplest of recipes, in its making, not only breaks down the sugar in the wheat and deactivates the lectins, which makes it easy to digest, but while doing so, it also activates two most amazing antioxidants called ferulic acid and alkylresorcinols. And it’s also a source of vitamin and minerals. This ensures that the halwa not only instantly energises you but can keep you going for a long period of time. The ghee and cardamom have a zen effect on the left side of the brain that is prone to stress with even a slight change in ambience, whether caused by weather or circumstances.”

Sooji halwa
Rich in protein, sooji mirrors the satiating nature of whole wheat and can be equally filling even when had in small quantities.

Incidentally, this multi-level functionality is one of the many reasons why most halwa including the calorie-rich moong dal halwa work for our system, albeit when taken in moderate quantities and at a time when the body has enough time to process the calory intake. According to nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “This time is around the morning, especially between 7am and 9am when our body goes into this high stress zone by default. This is when aate ka halwa is most effective as it has this placebo effect in the situation.”

In fact, adds Bhassin, “it is this effect that also makes kheer, the runny kind, an effective, edible therapy to calmness, and gives halwa the same goodness for which ladoos were made traditionally, minus of course the portioning, which is key to making halwa, especially those made with grains and lentils.”

This, say the experts, “may explain the clever creation of variations that can make halwa, health worthy through the year. Case in point is sooji ka halwa. Technically whole wheat, this bran and germ heavy version of flour works equally well during summers. Rich in protein, sooji or semolina mirrors the satiating nature of whole wheat, and thus can be equally satiating even if had in small quantities.”

The equation is the same, adds Chef Dewan, “with besan ka halwa and halwa made with moong dal. Given that moong is much lighter than chana dal, it is preferred during the rest of the year. The only caution is to portion well, use natural sources of sugar – hence explaining the creation of fruit-based halwas as well – properly garnished, which means a collection of nuts and dry fruits instead of one, and last but not the least, using the coarse ground version to make the halwa.”

Using coarsely ground flour and lentils in making halwa not only adds a certain texture to the halwa, but also fills you up better as it retains the moisture better than a finely ground version, concludes Chef Seth, who finds halwa made of coarsely ground grain better in taste and effective in portioning since “little is enough”.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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