Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries

While eating Halwa, only one thought rules my mind that calories don’t count. There are varieties of Halwa to savour, from Gajar(carrot) to Suji (semolina), Atta(flour) to Badam(nuts) and Moong-dal(lentils) to Besan(gram). Apart from the traditional ingredients, other very peculiar ingredients like Papaya, Singadha (water chestnut), Lauki(bottle gourd), and pumpkin are also used. As a kid, I remember Halwa bringing us all together as one collected entity of sweet lovers. Hence if you are weak in the knees and planning to order some, then be advised; this tale will make you drool!

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Platter

Halwa holds some part of my memory and consciousness. And it has something in it for everyone. Hence, I chose to dig into the history of it leads to a better understanding of the world’s various cultures, religions, agricultural practices, and political pasts. And since I have a sweet tooth, Halwa is indeed a tasty enticing sweet. 

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Sahi Badam

Well, it is believed that Halwa originated in Persia. Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Karīm documented many Persian recipes in the 13th century in the Arabic book named Kitab al-Tarikh.  As per legends, Kitab al-Tarikh was later adopted and expanded by the Ottoman Turks because the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Empire- Suleiman, was fond of desserts. And he had a separate kitchen for only sweet dishes. And then it was prepared by the helvahâneli (confectioner) with three essential ingredients: starch, fat and sweetener. Even a nut-based Helva (as the Turkish called it) traces its history to the Byzantine empire before the 12th century CE. Quite! Interesting.

Turkish

Although the word ‘halwa’ roots are in the Arabic word ‘Hulw’, which means sweet, it entered the English language between 1840 and 1850 from Romanian, which came from the  Ottoman Turks. Also, the Middle Eastern dessert original dish was made from date paste and milk. However, the book mentions eight different varieties and their recipes. On the other hand, the ‘Halwa’ is a truffle-shaped dish primarily prepared with ghee, flour, and sugar in Egypt. 

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Eygt Truffles

Although Halwa is a ubiquitous dessert in India, that is found across the country with local variations. Hence it cannot be denied that we Indians have transformed the dessert beyond recognition. It is an integral component in various religious traditions — Gurdwaras serve Atta halwa as ‘Kada prasad’, and Sooji halwa with poori’ an essential prasad in Navratri. Each desi household has its own story to tell about this delicacy. It is the go-to dessert to satiate one’s sweet cravings regardless of which part of India you belong to.

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Atta

Food historians hint that its is as old as the hills and roots sometime in 3000 B.C.E. In contrast, many others believe that mentions of a gummy, greasy, sweet confection were found in Istanbul’s early references (12th century). But it is not easy to pinpoint the exact period when Halwa entered Indian kitchens. However, two coastal cities were introduced to Halwa Karachi and Kozhikode by the Arabs through the trade route. Later the Persians influenced Halwas in the Indian Subcontinent in a way more decadent and innovative. Today of all the countries of the East, India possesses by far the most unusual recipes for this most popular, widespread sweet. 

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Istanbul

Innovations have been added to this dish over the centuries; it can be defined in varieties. One I recall this is the delightful Anda Halwa prepare by a sizeable Muslim population in Uttar Paresh. All those who routinely demolish large cakes made of eggs find this dish exotic. 

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Anda Halwa

Another one I remember is the Tirunelveli halwa, which got a geographical indication in India. Because a 200-year-old shop in Tirunelveli known as “Iruttukadai” was given exclusive sale rights to sell this sweet, this cuisine is prepared in three days by extracting wheat milk from samba wheat. Then fermented for a day, & on the third day, halwa is prepared with sugar, ghee and garnished with fried cashew nuts. The dish is made manually by stirring for more than an hour.

Tirunelveli

Another such tale of halwa is about Jouzi halwa, sold at the century-old Hameedi Confectioners in Hyderabad. Hussain’s grandfather introduced the mouthwatering sweet dish in India, and the shop appears in every tourist’s must-visit place. Another Jouzi Halwa Sohan, prepared with Samnak (wheat germ) in Lucknow, was an Awadh speciality. Legend has it that unless the dewdrops rained on a moonlit night on the Samnak used, the dish didn’t acquire the right taste. 

Like the Jouzi, the Kharak Halwa of the Bohra community in Gujrat has its culinary origins from Persia. It’s cooked in Khoya, with the sweetness of sugar and the richness of de-seeded dates, walnuts, and cashews. Even Badam Halwa is a part of Persian culinary. It is prepared on special occasions, a velvety smooth dish, rich with almonds, golden with the tinge of saffron, smelling sweet of cardamoms, strewn with rose petals and cashews is served.

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Kharak Halwa

In that case, the Karachi or Bombay Halwa is quite different from the grainy one. This one is prepared using cornflour, sugar and water. It is made from Rawa(semolina), while Sindhi’s thrive on halwa made from Lapsi or Dalia (broken wheat).

Karachi

However, the Karutha Haluwa made of rice in Kerala showcase significant Arab and Middle Eastern connections. 

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Karutha

This varied halwa is a testimony to how much the local populace adopted it and experimented with it. A myriad of the most unique and delicious Indian sweet dishes are the ones made for banquets and feasts. A few of them are Gazar, Pumpkin or Gourd and the banana halwa. And this popularity became the root of Halvais, the confectioner’s caste In India. And the specialised Halwai trade is almost exclusively a Hindu preserve.

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Gazar

Since this dish can be made out of anything, believe it or not, red chilli is an ingredient. The Pune’s Hari Mirch Halwa is prepared as a sweet blend of green chillies, flavoured milk powder and cream. I think one of the best innovations in the history of Indian food.

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Hari Mirchi

Depending upon where you go in India, we tend to find types of Halwa. Some use spices, nuts, or seeds, even zedoary flour or veg (carrot, potatoes, beets or squash), fruit (bananas, mangoes, papayas) or legumes (lentils, peanuts, moong beans). Other ingredients can include cream, egg custard or coconut milk. And can be flavoured with any number of nuts, spices and dried fruits.

Halwa: A sweet tale through the centuries
Lauki

But then, the Halwa had quite a journey. It is called Halava in Sanskrit, Halawa in Egypt, Makedonikos Halvas in Greece, Halvah in Hebrew Hilwa or Halawi in Arabic, Helva in Turkey and Halwa back here in India. We can’t deny that we Indians have transformed the Halwa beyond recognition. Therefore it is undoubtedly an enticing, mouthwatering sweet, loved by millions of people, young and old, worldwide.

 

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