I will admit it, I’ve become a bit of a halwa snob. or maybe a connoisseur. I may be the first to use the word halwa-lier like a wine sommelier. But I have probably tasted more versions of it than most any other Americans. And, up until a year ago I had no idea what it was. Then I ventured into a little Indian Restaurant in Lebanon, Ohio, and the two of us became very intimate.
So what the heck is it? It’s an amazing Indian dessert with a carrot puree base. There was something about its neon orange traffic cone color that drew me in and on my plate at the lunch buffet. At first taste I was introduced to a great mildly sweet carrot flavor, with bursts of tangy sweet from golden raisins . Now when I say carrot puree, I know you’re thinking- baby food. But its not completely smooth and homogenized like baby food. There’s some texture and crunch with grated carrots as well as pureed, and other ingredients like turmeric that give it a different flair. Oh yeah, and there’s also a lot of ghee or clarified butter, which makes everything taste richer. I was so taken by this new dish I demanded an explanation from the only waitress who spoke English. She said there are thousands of ways to make halwa in India, but this was her mother’s recipe that she grew up eating. Some integrate milk or cream into the puree and some are super sweet.
In India halwa can be made with other ‘fruits’ like pumpkin, pineapple, mung lentils, apples, papaya, sweet potato, beetroot, banana, and with variety of flours – wheat, water chestnut flour, seminola, pinhead oats – hmmm a goetta fusion may be in order – and even cream of wheat. Spices used vary as well – from cardamom and turmeric to saffron. I focus on the carrot halwa – called gajar halwa in India – which seems to be the most prevalent available in Cincinnati Indian buffets.
So I embarked on a search for gajar halwa at all Indian restaurants I went to. If they didn’t have in on their menu, I asked why and then yelled at them for not having it, all of which resulted in good laughter, especially coming from a pale Germanic gringo like me.
I wonder if it is canned for the lazy home market, or if it would even do well canned. There are several Indian markets in Sharonville where I plan to search for it.
And maybe I’m biased and regionalistic, but I think the best I’ve had is in my neighborhood of Oakley at Baba India on Madison road. Their halwa is buttery and delicious, and has roasted slivered almonds on top, but no golden raisins like the one in Lebanon. I have a suspicion theirs is a Punjabi recipe, because the elderly cooks who refill the dishes at the buffet all wear tightly wound head scarves. It’s always on their lunch buffet, but it’s not very well taken. I think its that a lot of people don’t know what it is, because all that the tags says on the buffet is halwa . It should say “Halwa, a genius buttery North Indian dessert made of carrot puree and other secret magical ingredients that will delight your taste buds and not make you fat. And I’m ok with its obscurity because it just means there’s more for me.
You might call it the healthier Indian version of pumpkin pie, without the crust, and less gelationous. In fact, halwa would be good as a pumpkin pie filling.
Friday, I tried a Pakistani version, that I heard a Pakastani woman at the table next to me call just ‘sweet.’ I think this is what they call moong dal halwa in northern India. It’s quite different than the Indian version – it’s more of like a tapioca-gelatin, but has a similar flavor, although not as carroty.
I’ve not tried to make it myself yet, because I haven’t been able to get a recipe from Baba yet. Until then, I’ll leave it up to the experts. But, I love it so much that I am thinking about going fusion with it. I will be trying it as a halwa strudel – using Baba’s and wrapping it in dough – what may be the first Indian-Germanic fusion since the post war invention of currywurst in Berlin. I kinda feel a little like Frau Herta Heweur.