A carrot of goodness

The indigenous variety of carrot — the kala gajjar — has become a poster boy of sustainability for chefs this winter season, writes Madhulika Dash

It was a winter ritual, especially around the latter half of the winter when my grandmother would take me to the market and pick these lovely purple looking carrots from the market, says chef Amninder Sandhu (Executive chef, Arth), as she smells the fresh stock of black carrot delivered to her Mumbai kitchen from a vendor. Her fingers, as habit would have it, pinch and squeeze the top of the carrot as her eyes search for the grater in her kitchen. Arth, in Mumbai, is a pioneer when it comes to a gas-free traditional kitchen in the country, one of the first in fact.

A grater in hand, chef Sandhu begins the very first step of a dish that became the poster boy of sustainability this winter, with chefs pan-India experimenting with one of the oldest variants of carrots in India.

But for the slow food protagonist, who was among the first to introduce this old Delhi favourite as a chefs signature, creating the halwa — “though I have grown up mostly drinking the fermented, probiotic drink called kanji,” she insists — is akin to reliving her childhood in real time.

The beauty about kala gajjar, says Chef Sandhu, “is that it isn’t just a delicious, limited-edition seasonal produce, but a power-pack, all-organic pill that can supply you with the right ammunition to outlast any seasonal change — and its vagaries.”
In other words, this variety of gajjar comes with a high amount of calcium, iron and potassium which helps in strengthening bones and teeth, Vitamins A, B and C that are essential for a healthy heart and eyesight.

While that may have been one of the primary reasons for kala gajjar gaining favouritism among chefs this season, it isn’t the only thing that made it a poster boy of sorts for the sustainable movement in the food world. Kala gajjar revival in the restaurant, says Rishim Sachdeva (former head chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen) is for two reasons. One, the novelty — given the limited places you get it, it was easily forgotten — and two, the sheer sugar composition that makes playing with this variety of carrot so much fun. 

As a sweeter cousin to the red/orange variety of carrot, the black carrot is a great produce to ferment with some stunning result.

In fact, says chef Akshraj Jodha, “it is one of the most common forms in which kala gajjar is consumed in much of North India, even in Rajasthan, where kala gajjar is paired with vylati gajjar (another version of carrot, which is off white in colour) to create a pickle that is had between the start of summers till after Holi.”

It is believed, he adds, “that the pickle bolsters the gut and keeps you healthy.”

 This perhaps explains why for many — including the chefs — the introduction to gajjar has been in the form of a tangy drink called kanji.

In fact, adds chef Shantanu Mehrotra (executive chef, Indian Accent), “The health factor, combined with the fact that the best quality of kala gajjar comes during this time of the year makes it a common beverage in Holi across most of North India.”

Chef Amninder Sandhu
Chef Amninder Sandhu

For a few like chef Megha Kohli (head chef, Lavaash By Saby) though, the advent of kala gajjar meant only one thing — a bowl of buttery, velvety halwa. “It was like a winter must. The sight of a good quality carrot, which my grandmother often said could be identified with its colour and shape, meant a sweet bowl of black carrot halwa that we could indulge in to our hearts’ content. In fact, it was often considered the healthier halwa because it needed less sugar, mava and other embellishments to make it look inviting. The brilliant dark purple hue was an extra bonus.”

It was much later in life though that chef Kohli discovered the charms of cooking with such a brilliant ingredient. Admits the culinary expert, “working with black carrot comes with its set of interesting surprises. First, it is far sturdier to handle when raw. You can work the kind of flakes you want with it with ease. But as soon as it hits the pan, it begins to take a much satin kind of appearance —  and suddenly you have this malleable halwa that is naturally sweet and can be reworked to your
creativity.”

Megha Kohli
Megha Kohli

Adds chef Kohli, “the addition of the milk, mawa, dry fruits and even ghee is to give your own signature style to a dish that was discovered in the bylanes of old Delhi. The outcome can be unique.” Agrees Chef Sandhu, who has now created a version in a jar that can travel places, though she insists, “it isn’t transitional-friendly yet.”
But what both chef Sandhu and Chef Kohli concur is the canvas that black carrot provides them to showcase their creativity.

“Even while making the halwa, you don’t really need to create it traditionally, it works beautifully with layering of different flavours as well,” says chef Sharad Dewan (regional director, Food Production, The Park Hotel), who often works with black carrot to showcase the different facet that makes for a great halwa or a dip. 

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