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Putting halwa on the world map

A trip to Oman led Phorum Dalal on a halwa trail to understand its entry and transformation across India

Omani Halwa

Salim Maawali, our tour guide in Muscat, Oman, is in a rather happy mood. As we drive around the city, he tells us about his son’s upcoming engagement. “We will have singing, dancing, and halwa,” he explains, promising to take us to an authentic halwa shop at Nizwa Local Market. Here, we learn about its core ingredients — starch, water, sugar, zaffran, cardamom, sugar (white or brown, which influences the final colour of the dish). “The mixture is stirred for three to four hours and we garnish it with cashew nuts, almonds or pistachio. It can last for a month,” the seller explains.We take a bite of the chewy, gummy treat. Overly sweet, we wash it down with Omani coffee and dates. It has a perfect bittersweet balance.

Back home, we bring this up with celebrity chef Ranveer Brar and he takes us on a historical drive, starting in Turkey. “Turkish delight or the idea of cooking sugar and starch and ghee (sometimes) started here, which is probably how the idea of halwa was born. It came to India in two ways — to the South via the Arabs who came from Yemen to buy spices. This is similar to the sticky Omani halwa. It is a dark or light brown sticky concoction and there has been no adulteration,” says Brar, turning his attention to North India. “It trickled down from Iraq, down to Afghanistan, Sindh, Pakistan and India. In this case, the essence stayed and the starch changed according to what was available. So, North Indian halwa is a corrupted version. On the other hand, Kerala and other southern parts didn’t have too many starch options to mess around with except tapioca or rice,” says Brar.

“The maximum modification happened in Sindh. They cooked wheat, powdered it (wheatgerm) and used that water for making halwa, giving us Karachi or Sindhi halwa. They also used angoori atta — sprouted wheat atta,” says Brar.

When we mention our favourite gajar and doodhi halwa, he explains that they are fairly younger, Aryan adaptations. “Remember, food came from Turkey. When it went to Europe, it was more refined. When it travelled to the Middle East and beyond, it became more rustic. The original Turkish delight is the precursor of the halwa.”

In the early 19th century, a 15-year-old Turkish boy called Mohammed Hussain decided to start his business and set up a sweet shop in Hyderabad. This shop was the first in the city during the rule of the Nizam. “The sweet shop sold everything Turkish, and one of them happened to be the Jauzi Halwa. This halwa was made out of jauzi, a spice from Turkey. It was very famous and the then Nizam himself tasted the sweets in the shop. He liked the sweet so much that he announced that the shop be named after the name of one of his sons. That’s how the shop came to be called Hameedi,” executive chef Prabhakar Sannamanda of Siesta Hitech explains. This halwa is made with ghee, sprouted wheat flour (samnak), milk, saffron, kewra water and spices like nutmeg, mace and cardamom.

Jauzi Halwa

Ingredients:

250 gm wheat extract (samnak)
20 cups milk 2½ cups wholemilk fudge (khoya),
1 tsp mashed saffron (kesar)
½ tsp screwpine (kewra) essence
1 kg sugar
1 kg ghee
A blade Mace (javitri)
Pinch of nutmeg (jaiphal) 
10 green cardamom (choti elaichi)

Method: In a kadhai, mix the wheat extract and milk and cook on low heat, stirring constantly. This process is important to obtain the right consistency. When the milk is reduced to half, add whole milk fudge, stirring constantly to blend to a smooth mixture.

Add saffron mixture dissolved in kewra essence and sugar. Keep stirring. When the sugar is incorporated into the mixture and it becomes thick and difficult to stir, add ghee from the sides and stir well for about 20-30 minutes. When the halwa no longer sticks to the kadai and becomes a cohesive mass, turn it out in a greased tray. Sieve the finely grounded mace, nutmeg and green cardamom over the halwa.

(Courtesy: Prabhakar Sannamanda, executive chef, Siesta Hitech)

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