Desi halwas were surely meant for the freezing climes of Europe and North America. The nuts, the khoya, the ghee, all come together to produce a dish so unique, it is hard to resist when you begin each winter’s day with chattering teeth. Gajar ka Halwa falls squarely into this category of winter treats, reminding you of home, your parents and your long-forgotten childhood. Unfortunately when it comes to carrots found beyond the realm of the homeland, one finds that they fall miserably short of those that produced that mouth-watering delicacy of yore. Their sickly pallor and blandness does not encourage the cooking of halwa. But when memories of home overwhelm your every moment, and nothing but your ammi’s food appeals, you can’t help but rustle up something from long ago. Last year I let half the winter go by before giving in, buying the wretched carrots at the supermarket and making us halwa to have with our tea. Surprisingly, it didn’t disappoint. This year, I didn’t waste quite as much time. As the autumn got brisker, I decided to pick up a few bags of grated carrots at the supermarket and get on with it.
Our supermarket sells grated carrots in sealed bags. Last year, I diligently bought proper carrots and then slaved, peeling and grating them by hand (we have an electric grater somewhere in the depths of the kitchen cupboards, but I couldn’t be bothered to find it.) This year, I reasoned that the frequency with which the bags of grated carrots disappear from the supermarket fridge racks, and the fact that they are in fact refrigerated, points to the certainty of them being fresh enough. I bought three bags, which came to 1 kg. of grated carrots. Of course you may choose to peel and grate fresh carrots yourself.
You will need:
- Grated carrots – 1 kg.
- Ghee – 4 generous tablespoons
- Green cardamoms – 12
- Evaporated (not condensed) milk – 400 ml. can
- Sugar – 220 g.
- Blanched, chopped almonds – a handful
Ghee is the traditional medium to cook halwa in. Oil is not a good idea because it does not get absorbed into the finished halwa as ghee does. If you succeed in bhoonoing (I shall explain this process later in this recipe) your halwa properly, but use oil to do this, you may well end up with the oil completely separated from the halwa at the end. Ghee does not behave like this. It becomes part of the halwa while still allowing you to bhoono for as long as you like. If you are fearful of the idea of ghee for some reason (as many of us are at some point or other in our lives), you may well substitute it with butter, or a half-and-half mixture of butter and your cooking oil. Butter is a wondrous ingredient of course. But ghee really is what should be used. It is the real thing. And it has got a bad rep for too long without any valid reason at all. This is another discussion for another day though.
Heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed cooking pan and add your grated carrots to it. Turn the heat on medium to low and leave the carrots to sweat and soften in the pan, with the lid on. The carrots will cook in their own juices, and soften too, until you will find the juices evaporated. Now add the evaporated milk to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil on high heat and then leave to cook on medium to low heat again, with the lid only slightly ajar. Evaporated milk saves the tedium of having to cook away litres of milk from a halwa. It also goes some way towards making up for the absence of khoya in your halwa, presuming of course that you cannot find khoya where you live. Let the carrots cook with the milk till the milk dries up. In the mean time, take the seeds out of the cardamom pods and crush them, using a pestle and mortar. Discard the pods. Keep an eye on the carrots when the milk is in the last stages of drying up because it is easy for the carrots at the bottom of the pan to get singed.
When the milk dries up, turn the heat up and begin stirring the carrots about quite determinedly. This is the cooking technique known as ‘bhoon-na’ in Pakistani cooking. The purpose of this exercise is to completely cook away any remaining moisture from the milk and the carrots. But this single technique is actually the secret to a delicious halwa outcome. Quite simply put, the longer you have the stamina to toss and turn the carrots on a high heat with the cooking spoon, the more authentic your halwa will taste and look. The high heat will impart the colour to your halwa the firangi carrots so sorely lack. With every turn, a new side of the conglomerating carrots will be exposed to the hot pan, resulting in a lovely rich colour, not far different from the colour of authentic halwa made from authentic Pakistani carrots. As you bhoono your carrots, add the cardamom seed powder to them. A delicious aroma will waft from the pan with the addition of the cardamom seeds, an encouragement that you are on the path to halwa success. Persevere. Call on all the family to help if you must. Husbands salivating in the background are often more than happy to pitch in and help you bhoono your halwa. (It is also a golden opportunity for you to impress upon them the fact of how much relentless work goes into producing the masterpieces they love to devour.) Bhoono, bhoono for as long as you can. Watch the colour turn a deep rusty orange.
When the moisture has evaporated completely, without a shred of doubt, from the halwa, add the sugar. Mix well. The halwa will become at once more moist and malleable. Mix for a couple of minutes. Taste it and ask its premier eaters to do the same. The amount of sugar stated above produces a ‘nafees mithaas’, a ‘sophisticated sweetness’, as my parents would put it. You may add more, or less, depending on your taste. Remember also that if you are to serve the halwa at room temperature, or not quite as hot as it is at the time of tasting, it will taste less sweet – hot halwa always tastes sweeter than cold halwa.
Dish your halwa out. Sprinkle it with the chopped almonds, the more the merrier I always feel. Enjoy!