India@75: Gajar ka halwa

Healthy, hearty, and soothingly hued, when it comes to brightening a winter morning, nothing quite does it like a bowl of warm carrot halwa, lovingly called gajrela or gajar ka halwa.

There is something disarmingly magical about a warm bowl of gajar ka halwa — one cannot deny its overtures, especially during winters. Such is the hold of the Mughal-era sweet treat on our collective minds that all one can think of is halwa at the very sight of the cherry red/ juicy orange carrots. This may explain not just the omnipresence of this halwa across India but the many recipes that have been created to make the best of the kind of carrot available. And this includes the unique Kerala-style Carrot Halwa, which follows the Karachi Halwa style and is made of carrot puree instead of grated carrots. 

Gajar ka halwa | carrot halwa
Gajar ka halwa is the quintessential Indian winter dessert

But what is it about carrot — an ingredient native to India — and the halwa that we find so fascinating? To begin with, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “Carrot is nature’s instant food. It is a rich source of calcium, fibre and minerals, and is the best way to get beta-carotene that helps break down Vitamin A and other nutrients in the body and comes with a healthy dose of anthocyanin (also seen in blueberries and mulberry), which is helpful in keeping inflammation low and the heart healthy among other things. This makes carrot one of the essential foods during winters.”

Precisely the reason that steamed or grilled carrots are a part of all major feasts during the season, Christmas and winter solstice included. But what really earns carrot halwa the extra bonus point is the fact that, continues Bhassin, “most nutrients in carrot are fat soluble. In other words, once carrot starts cooking along with milk, some of the lost nutrients from carrot are captured within the milk solids. However, that happens when the halwa is slow cooked with milk (or clarified butter) that has the right amount of fat.” 

Incidentally, the last two requirements is what most traditional gajar ka halwa recipes have managed to achieve. And the credit for this goes not to the orange or cherry red variety of the carrot that seems to have spearheaded the popularity of gajrela but, says Chef Vineet Manocha, Senior VP, Cuisine, Lite Bite Foods, “to kali gajar that is a breed native to India, and was the first choice of carrot to make gajar ka halwa, when the technique arrived in North India through the Silk Route during the early years of the Delhi Sultanate.”

In fact, continues Chef Sharad Dewan, Founder-Director, Gourmet Design Company, “the process of making gajar ka halwa was designed around the purple carrot, which still grows in many parts of North India with the best variety hailing from Malihabad. Sweeter, with a higher level of anthocyanin — which made it perfect for kanji and pickling as it aided fermentation — the carrot, to become the balmy winter sweet treat, needed a little more of cajoling. Thus, was factored in the grating of carrot and the cooking of it in fat.”

The choice of milk and ghee as the two taste-making fats, says Chef Manocha, “was an obvious choice; after all, India was among the few civilisations that could digest milk, and knew of the virtues of using milk — and its byproducts — in cooking.”  

Chef sharad dewan
According to Chef Sharad Dewan the best kala gajar comes from Malihabad, which is also noted for its mangoes

Given the inherent sweetness, says Balpreet Singh Chadha, Executive Chef, The Park Hotel Kolkata, “of kala gajar, the earlier iteration of the halwa didn’t call for any use of sugar or mawa — which seems to be a very late addition to make the dish richer — and would often be finished with dry fruits, especially slivers of almonds and cardamom powder for the aroma, and served topped with a dollop of malai or rabri. This would create a contrast of sweetness that made the kali gajar ka halwa both a treat and something for wellness.”

In its success as a winter sweet treat, kali gajar ka kalwa set the precedence for newer varieties of carrots that made their way to the erstwhile Delhi Sultanate, thanks partly to trade and partly to the soil composition that led to the creation of the safed gajar ka halwa. A rare-to-find breed of carrot, safed gajar presented the other spectrum of the vegetable. Grown in a few patches around the capital, safed gajar while easy to cook is far less sweet than the popular red variety. This called for the use of additional sweetness not just in the form of crystal sugar (initially, and then sugar) but khoya as well. Understandably the halwais had to tweak the cooking pattern to suit the variety that cooked faster but needed the extra frills for its persona. As a result, while safed gajar ka halwa earned its following, only a few places like the Sheeren Bhawan near Jama Masjid in Delhi continue to make this mushed version that is best had warm. 

Chef balpreet singh chadha
Chef Balpreet Chadha says that sugar or mawa was a late addition to make gajar ka halwa richer

For the rest of the populi, however, gajar ka halwa or gajrela — a name that is said to have been coined to differentiate the Indian halwai innovation from the pasty version that travelled from the court of Persia to the seat of the Delhi Sultanate — was all about the red carrot, a progressive variety, that became popular after the 16th century. While there is some dispute about the paternity of the red carrot as it grew with flourish in the North Frontier region as well as China, there is little denying how rapidly it spread across different parts of the country, especially Ooty, courtesy the evolved horticulture science. Old tales have it that it was the different carrots that arrived from Samarkand that piqued Prince Dara Shikoh’s interest in horticulture. Prince Dara, whose work on horticulture is the finest of the time, was instrumental in not only creating a few dozen varieties of mangoes but also carrot varieties that allowed the vegetable to grow happily in different regions of the kingdom. Whether it was the Prince’s handiwork or carrot’s inherent ability to flourish given the right temperature and soil, gajar ka halwa rise to fame, says Chef Dewan, “can be exclusively attributed to the halwais whose handiwork at creating a delicious halwa, hyper-localised to the region, palate and resources added to halwa’s stardom.”

A fine example of how different regions inspired the halwa recipe can be seen in the version of Maharaj Hemaram Choudhary, Corporate Chef, Rasovara, who prefers a major portion of the cooking to be done by sweating the carrot in its own juices. Once the carrot reaches a level of doneness, milk and mawa are added to create a rich mouthfeel and preserve any inherent flavours from escaping. In fact, says Chef Choudhary, “It was this version of halwa that would have reached the Mughal court thanks to the Jodhpur halwais who were often responsible for creating the repertoire of Indian-style halwas using a variety of ingredients.”

Another example is of the Dogra style of making gajar ka halwa, where the grated carrots, says Chef Chadha, “is poached in milk and fat till both the carrot and milk have reduced to the rich consistency of a rabri. It is here that ghee along with almonds are added to give the halwa its final flavours and seal any further loss of nutrients.”

Gajar ka halwa | carrot halwa
Nothing is more comforting than a bowl of gajar ka halwa or gajrela in winter

For a good part of history, the recipe of gajar ka halwa was as functional and frugal as kheer — and that simplicity, says Chef Dewan, “was one of the reasons behind its monumental popularity as making the halwa needed limited resources and little effort provided the quality of produce was good. The rest of the embellishment was done while plating this naturally stunning looking halwa that scored because of its unique texture and colour — be it the final toss in ghee, the generous sprinkling of dry fruits and nuts or the layer of malaiyo or rabri to create this multi-layer of flavours.”

In fact, back in the day, one could gauge, say the chefs, “that good carrots were in season by looking at how the halwais serve the warm, gooey treat. A good sprinkling of dry fruits before handing over the bowl of warm goodness or a layer of balai on top usually indicated to the freshness.”

Was it carrot that made halwa famous or vice versa is still a matter of wonder today, but over the years, the halwa, once the privy of the winter-blessed north made its way across India not just as part of the royal and then the colonial table, but with halwais migrating to different regions. And while most today follow one of the two ground rules of making the halwa — either start with carrot and milk and bring it down to half or sweat it out in ghee before adding ways to make it rich — the final product often is in keeping with the region it hails from. That’s the reason there are as many gajar ka halwas in India as there are communities — and yet, each of those versions is equally delicious and addictive.

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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