When you think of Halwa, you probably imagine a sweet concoction made from wheat flour, ghee, and sugar. This is the popular kind of halwa that we savor but one can find sweet, sour, spicy, and salty variants of halwa amidst the bustle of many North Indian cities.
It remains uncertain whether halwa was first invented and used in Indian cuisine. The Arabic word "hulw," meaning "sweets," is where the Indian word "halwa" gets its name. Lapsi, a sweet dish similar to halwa, is made by mixing whole wheat flour, sugar, and jaggery.
People in the present-day states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra are credited with popularizing the use of broken wheat in the creation of lapsi. Halwa’s place in popular culture was given a new lease of life when the bollywood song "Aagaya Halwa Wala Aagaya " became a hit in 1987. Like that song, the halwa itself is today seen as a dated thing. That said, it did have its day in the sun.
In all likelihood halwa isn’t Indian in origin. It was only after Muslims arrived in large numbers in India that halwa gained widespread popularity. Food historians trace the earliest known mention of Halwa to an Arabic cookbook titled Kitab al-Tabikh, which dates back to the early 13th century. Halwa, according to Alan Davidson of The Oxford Companion to Food fame, has its roots in Arabic cooking.
Through trade and conquest, it made its way to the Middle East and beyond, where it underwent a series of name changes along the way: halawa in Egypt, "Makedonikos Halvas" in Greece, "halvah" in Hebrew, "halawi" in Arabic, "helva" in Turkey, and "halwa" in India. The Halwa article on Wikipedia lists over 30 countries where this sweet, or a similar dessert, is popular.
India alone has countless versions of the halwa, with each state taking the recipe in a different direction by adding local ingredients. For instance, Bhatkal in Karnataka makes a Banana Halwa while Kozhikode in Kerala makes halwa with coconut oil, not ghee like the rest of India. Listing every single type of halwa in India is an impossible task, so we’re looking sat the most famous ones. Who knows, maybe the halwa can yet stage a comeback and become cool again.
Sweet Halwa Made with Sooji (Semolina)
The classic home-cooked halwa. This dish can be thrown together quickly and with minimal effort. Sooji halwa is a common favorite during Navratri and has become synonymous with the festival. Sooji-ka-halwa is also given as ‘prashad’ at religious places like temples and gurudwaras.
Carrot Halwa, or Gajar Halwa
This halwa is our go-to dessert during the colder months. This is the one we all grew up with and hated as kids. Well, some of us anyway! Since the carrots required to make gajar-ka-halwa are seasonal, they are only prepared during the winter months. The ingredients for carrot halwa are grated carrots, khoya, and milk. Sauté the grated carrot in ghee over medium heat. It will be soaked in milk and cooked later. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and continue cooking for a few minutes after the carrot is almost completely dry. Gajar-ka-halwa is a time-consuming dessert that requires more than an hour to make. But it remains a consistent favorite, especially across northern India.
Moong Dal Halwa
This halwa is made by cooking split moong. You will find this halwa being served at many formal banquets and celebrations. Though the preparation is straightforward, it will demand your full focus, because it is easy to overcook the dal and spoil the dish. Ensure the moong dal paste is smoothened, then cooked in ghee until it turns a golden color. Add some chopped almonds for that final flourish as you serve it.
Badam Ka Halwa
This halwa is an almond-flavored sweet. If you love almonds and have a sweet tooth, you must give this a try. With half a kilogram of almonds, you can make it at home yourself and customize it the way you desire. It's made in much the same way as the moong dal halwa we discussed earlier, except the almonds need to be soaked and peeled before they're added to the mix.
Lauki Ka Halwa
Bottle gourd dessert anyone? Also, knowns as Doodhi ka halwa, has a flavor not unlike that of carrot halwa. What? Lauki tastes like carrot? Well, yes, the halwa does a little bit. The bottle gourd must be cut down the middle. Put the grated gourd in a bowl and cover it with a mixture of milk and water. Lauki halwa benefits from the addition of dried fruits and green cardamom. It's the way the green cardamom blends with the gourd that makes Lauki ka Halwa different and special.
This halwa is the pride of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. This dish takes a while to make but is worth the wait. Instead of being drained off like other candies, the excess ghee forms a flavorful and crunchy coating, which then allows the halwa to be stored for longer periods. Locals claim this Wheat Halwa’s heavenly flavor comes from the water used in the preparation - it comes from the nearby Thamirabarani River, which has high copper content.
Love it or hate it, halwa forms an integral part of Indian cuisine and comes in a plethora of flavors, textures, colors, and forms. We tend to take it for granted, but it is definitely worth revisiting.