If there is one sweet dish that unabashedly dominates the annals of Indian dessert history, it is Halwa. Yet, the exact origin of Sheera or Sooji ka Halwa (semolina pudding) is mired in hearsay and ambiguity. The first-ever text to cite Halwa was a 13th-century Arabic recipe book Kitab al-Tabikh. The text mentions a semolina halwa made by roasting sooji in ghee and honey. Other texts highlight semolina puddings made with milk, pistachios, pine-nuts, dates and apples.
A century later, semolina pudding was being made in Spain with camphor, sesame oil, honey and saffron, as per historical accounts.
In 16th-century Mughal India, Halwa was a common sight at the royal courts during Sufiyana, a time when Emperor Akbar avoided meat preparations. But Halwa was not just an elite treat. Muslims from the lower economic strata also consumed it for breakfast, with a side of Naan, Keema, nuts and dried fruits. Notwithstanding its confusing past, its influence is evident in sweetmeat makers still being addressed as Halwais across the subcontinent.
Today, there are many versions of Suji Halwa prepared in different regions of the country. For example, in the southern Indian states, it is known as Kesari Baat, and in Maharashtra, it is addressed as Rava Sheera. In West Bengal, the same dish assumes the name of Mohan Bhog and is usually made during Hindu religious festivals.
Irrespective of its different names, the recipe for semolina pudding approximately is the same everywhere. On medium heat, sooji is sauteed in ghee until it starts giving off a nutty aroma. Then a sticky sugar syrup is slowly folded in until the sandy mixture starts to coagulate. Once cooked, it is served with cardamoms and slivers of cashew and almond.