India is largely known in the UK for its curries and street food, but it also has a variety of sweet dishes and desserts that could satisfy any sweet tooth. One of the most popular desserts in northern India, in particular the province of Punjab, is Gajar ka halwa; a treat that’s traditionally served during Diwali and Baisakhi, but is also enjoyed throughout the year and at any time of day.
Gajar ka halwa has become a mainstay of the Punjabi diet and culture, often making appearances in books and on the screen; no wonder so many call it the ‘king of Indian desserts.’
The name of this delicacy derives from ‘halwa’, the Arabic word for sweet; but while classic halwa consists of flour, sugar, nuts, butter and milk, Gajar ka halwa also contains a rather unusual ingredient: carrot.
Nobody can be certain about who was the first person to combine carrots (‘gajar’ in Hindhi), sugar, milk and ghee (clarified butter), but it’s thought that its roots date back hundreds of years. In fact, the story goes that it was introduced to the Moghul Empire by Punkab Sikhs who were trading with the Middle East during the early 16th century, when the empire was expanding.
Orange carrots were particularly coveted during this time, as the early carrots – cultivated in Afghanistan some 5000 years ago – were either yellow, white, purple or black, and had a tough, bitter taste. It was only following domestication by horticulturalists, sometime in the 16th century, that carrots began to have the orange colour and sweeter taste that we know them for today. When combined with the sweetness of halwa, of course, they became even more desirable.
The classic Gajar ka halwa is made by grating fresh carrots and mixing this with water, milk, sugar and ghee, before boiling and stirring until the milk has evaporated and you are left with a firm, dense sweet. Additional garnishes such as almonds or pistachios can then be added at this stage. It is a convenient dessert that can be enjoyed hot or cold, and is particularly popular during the winter harvest months when carrots are in abundance.
With it being such a versatile base, the original recipe has evolved over the years to include different variations incorporating seasonal or regional ingredients, with the fruits and vegetables used changing slightly. Modern variations also take into account new food tastes and trends. Sometimes the carrot mixture is given an extra creamy flavour with the use of cream or khoya, and there are also sugar-free options for those watching their waistline or trying to limit their sugar intake.
Red velvet carrot halwa is one example of a modern take on the dish, featuring rose water and saffron to add a sense of luxury; carrot and beetroot halwa is another popular variation, and some people enjoy their Gajar ka halwa with ricotta cheese.
To experience India’s range of delectable desserts for yourself – including the king of desserts – make a special visit to one of London’s best fine-dining Indian restaurants.