A personal guide to cook and enjoy a perfectly healthy dessert.
Name: Gajar ka halwa
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Prep time: 2 to 3 years
Serves: As much as your greed permits
About the dish.
The roots of gajar ka halwa lie in the northern state of India, Punjab. Though Indian soil originally never bore carrots, a key ingredient to the dish; it has been welcomed grandly into the hearts of every one of it's inhabitants. With simple methods that do not require an exhibit of one's high-priced hotel management degree, various techniques depending on whatever one's budget allows and the cornerstone of true contentment: sharing this happiness with their families, gajar ka halwa has managed to instantaneously put a huge smile in every member of every household in India for centuries.
My love for sweets.
I don't have much of a sweet tooth. It's not that I hate sweets. I just cannot find any part in me that would just loose itself over a single glance of sugary delights and dive into it like a glutinous pig, spreading myself all over it and it all over me. A scornful act which I would definitely indulge in, if it were Chicken Biryani in all it's glory calling me over from the dining table of a banquet hall surrounding hundreds of pretentious people, even in the most sophisticated of the places I am required at, even if the circumstances demand propriety. I would go on and proudly break both the table and the manners.
India and spice.
I have always preferred spice over sweet my whole life. I was born in India, the home to spices. So the contrast should not be hard to discern, as I am sure a bit of attention in the history class and the tales of any adventurer having 'Indian' on a date night and facing the wrath of it the next morning must be proof enough of our ever lasting perversion to heat and the spice galore in our food.
The sweet hiccup.
The problem with confectioneries as proven by my ongoing reconnoitre of the food world, is that they are overwhelming when you have them, depressing when you've had them and heart breaking when you are longing for them. Which also perfectly defines love. Anyway, because of my strong beliefs and my father's opposition over extending burdens on my mother's already heavy societally-victimized shoulders, our household lacked the sugar coat the rest of the world flaunted with pride.
Why Gajar ka halwa?
Because agaisnt all odds, gajar ka halwa had somehow snuck into our hearts and had triumphed in making a special place for itself for our own reasons. Maybe it is an easy dish for my mother to stuff shut the mouths that dictate that 'a cunt belongs in a kitchen' , may be it is an easy dish for my father to satisfy the requirements of a modern society and proving that 'a dick too can cook'. May be it was an easy dish for me to replace the loneliness and the truth of a love devoid childhood, a result of busy-working parents that were constantly juggling the ambitious successors and the obstinate predecessors of our civilization. Be what it may, it still remains one of my most pious retreats from the terrible horrors of life.
Hand picked huge carrots, medium grated and thrown into a cooking pan adding equal quantities of milk and allowed to condense slowly in dim heat like a fat kid running a marathon (No rush here; contentment anytime over victory). Once the carrots have coupled with every ounce of milk beautifully becoming one, it is seasoned with necessary sugar, well ground cardamom and cinnamon, garnished with ghee roasted cashew kernels and thinly sliced almonds, topped with a pinch of saffron both while cooking and serving. The mouth-watering heaven descent concoction is then carefully placed into a transparent glass bowl to extrapolate its radiance throughout- this is the design of my mother's 'gajar ka halwa'. The aroma always pulls me out of my hibernation like a snail after a storm, having me rushing into the kitchen waiting with anticipation and a trail of drool, watching maa stir the goods in process.
Preferred time to cook.
There is an uninstructable satisfaction with things that happen out of the blue, without a plan. As it was less in usual for us to include sweets in our daily lives, there were no special attributes assigned for preparing it. No need to wait for a reason or a special occasion for us to savor this goodness. Decision to make gajar ka halwa was something that purely happened in the moment, sparks initiated by infomercials showing similar delicacies or simply maa craving for it.
The color of a perfect gajar ka halwa is said to be the famous red-orange and a glow of ghee infused golden-roasted dry fruits and saffron. But carrots were originally purple in colour, they were apparently turned orange as a part of some 17th century political PR strategy. Irony here is that the purple carrots are believed to have more nutritious value than their counterparts. And so continuing the trend of humane vapidity, reddish juicy sweet carrots that grow only in the winter season are the ones preferred while aiming at perfection.
You define your own perfection.
But maa never dwelled in inconsequential matters of hard earned exemplary results. She wanted to have it when she wished to have it. She wouldn't wait for the earth to revolve around the Sun to relish her favorite dish. She had mastered the art of cooking this delight, ingeniously. She took whatever was in her disposal and whipped up the said confectionery in minutes. My father and I have of course tried our hand at it, fiddled in the kitchen like clueless monkeys, almost succeeding after tons of failed attempts in duplicating her vague recipe, line to line. But it always fell short. Something always felt amiss.
It all started as an innocent escape from the world. Maa in her most vulnerable moments, would just throw all the papers and heavy files or anything that was eating away at her and barged into the kitchen. Then would emerge out with a little bowl of orange steaming delicacy. As I never really cared for sweets and dad only ate to live; the halwa and she remained unbothered. But as soon as she would finish tongue-cleaning the bowl, she would rise a new human being, refreshed as if her innate tranquility had been evoked, her agitation burnt and an angel rose from the ashes. Naturally we couldn't remain unblemished from this fountain of peace and demanded our share in it. Little bowl transformed into little bowls and a ritual was born, us prying on maa's bad days to get ourselves a whiff of this exuberant medication.
I still remember the first time I forced gajar ka halwa into my mouth holding my nose up. I was in 5th or 6th grade. I hardly socialized. And as a result would spend most of my childhood watching away cartoons or reading comics. These comics had to be borrowed from a library, as pursuing anything out of curriculum is considered a waste of time by every Indian parent ever and spending money over them was a separate crime in its own. So I had to cycle to the library everday and bare a rent of rupees 2 per comic ,plus extra charges on failing to return the books before the time discussed.
I had just returned from the library with my lungs hanging out of my mouth , searching for breath , still angry at the librarian for not getting that one remaining Asterix and obelix comic I had to read to finish the collection. The infamous recluse of our family was holding in her hand the same tiny glass bowl she uses every time for gajar ka halwa. I wanted to see it for myself, what made maa so energized. This little elixir of life, I had to taste. I suppressed my desires initially telling myself chasing a superstition is a fool's job, but yielding to the overwhelming monster of curiosity, I picked up a spoon from the table and scooped one for myself from my mother's secret stash to happiness. And lord, Oh heaven! God is true. God exists. Because I had found my salvation, my religion served in a platter.
Why I love Gajar ka halwa.
There was an explosion in my mouth. The perfectly grated carrots dancing up and down on my tongue, neither too big to suffocate nor too small to have lost it's presence.. every grain of cardamom bursting into tiny granules as I chewed on them and each bite blended with the sweet aroma of cinnamon travelling in and out of my nostrils as I breathed. It was orgasmic , a release of chemical reactions in my body. A state of euphoria colluding with a high to produce a calm symphony. Everything was a part of it , the spices the carrots soaked in milk melting over, the ghee roasted kaaju and the juicy kishmish, my anger on the librarian that had started to deplete.. they all played their parts perfectly. I was in trance. I had lost the sense of reality until I gulped the last remaining debris of completely chewed halwa. I opened my eyes still infatuated by this novice tune, my nose was dancing to. I tried to direct my eyes towards maa to respectfully ask her for another spoon. But my eyeballs refused to oblige, they were tracing the kitchen's outline in search of this newfound hope. They caught the steam emerging from the bowl against the light falling from the window. I was pulled towards the bowl forgetting any form of courtesy as my brain had learnt that during all this commotion, the mother of mine had emptied the bowl, my rightful share, the final spoon was about to reach her wide open mouth.
Holding my spoon in my hand like a spear. Ready for another siege into the enemy territory, I charged towards this monster that was ravishing on my only remaining strand of hope. Before I could make it, maa had finished the bowl clean, she had won. But I was too busy to fret over my loss as I was happily re-masticating the vestige air of halwa in my mouth and swallowing back it's taste mingled with my saliva.
How? Just how?
It was baffling, how she had achieved this tremendous feat. She clearly lacks the dedication and precision that gave greatness to all famous chefs around the world. She never uses measurements. Every time I ask her the method, her recipe keeps growing new limbs or shedding the old ones. I've even caught her pressure cook the carrots into submission because she was in a rush. But no matter what she does or how she does it, the outcome never changes, it is always the perfect masterpiece. Just an addition to her unparalleled legacy.
The magic ingredient.
My tongue still rummaging through the crests of my teeth for any lodged remains, I ask her how? How did she prepare with those human looking hands this masterfull composition only celestially possible. She replied with a smile, a smile of ingenuity...
- "a bit of patience and lots of love."
Why I really love Gajar ka Halwa.
This melodramatic stating of facts or halwa's majestic taste are not the reasons why I really fell in love with gajar ka halwa. The saffron perfection just reminds me of a simpler time, a time when just a dish, I didn't even want to have in the first place could make me happy.. so much so that I forgot the biggest sorrow of the time. Happiness, even on a small-scale was enough to light my face up. The real reason I'm fond of the aforementioned delicacy is that it fills me with hope. In life , which now seems like the plight of a lost traveler in a desert with no compass , with time only slipping away.. and the destination seeming so far, it's very existence has started to waver. It's good to know... there is hope. That at the end of this Sisyphusitic thorn filled uphill of trying to roll a boulder to the top, my mother would be standing, waiting for me with a hot steamy bowl of gajar ka halwa.