Friday, February 5, 2021

Antidote to Delhi’s winter – Halwa, halwa and Sheeren Bhawan

The original article appeared in The Hindu Read the unedited version here.... Warming the body with winter halwas An old Chandni Chowk halwai had once told me, “dilli ka halwa to halwa soan hai” – meaning Sohan halwa is “the” halwa of Delhi. It is and Ghantewalan’s Sohan halwa is legendary. In the same breath that made by Chaina Ram is also saluted. Of course, Chaina Ram’s is more known for its Karachi halwa. Now these halwas are well known, as also the range of suji, wheat, moong dal halwas. However, come winter months and all eyes turn to the rich flavoursome gajar ka halwa. It is the bylanes of Jama Masjid (Chitli Kabr) and Chandni Chowk which stand out for this winter delicacy. It is while trying to track this in the Jama Masjid that the lesser known more flavourful Safed Gajar halwa came to light. Along with this several other winter offerings – Habshi, Gondh, Aloe Vera (geekwar) also came out. One of the oldest establishments selling Safed Gajar Halwa is Sheeren Bhawan. Tracking my way down the road, opposite Gate No. 1 of Jama Masjid is tantalising with rich offerings from Bakeries, Sheermal makers, Shahi tukda sellers and more. What touches one is the large heartedness of the sweet makers who happily offer their wares to sample before you even wish to purchase and do not bat an eyelid when you do not buy anything. Such refinement is rare in today’s Delhi. Shiraz, one of the sixth generation running the nearly 100 year old Sheeren Bhawan says, “it is actually sunehari gajar and it is sunehari gajar ka halwa.” The white carrot which I get to see looks more like the humble radish in colour though in shape like the red one. The taste though is entirely different. It does not have the inherent sweetness of the red carrot. It tastes like a carrot without sweetness with a neutral taste. Shiraz explains the genesis of white carrots saying, “the reason sunehari gajar is used is that it can be processed beautifully. We are the only ones who make it here. Some have started it recently. The traditional red variety mashes when cooked. Also it has a sweetness which is imparted to the halwa. White carrot on the other hand absorbs the flavours of milk, sugar, ghee, khoya and dry fruits and is more on the dry side and can be processed well.” Sheeren Bhawan has been making this for over 60 years, a recipe introduced by their grandfather Shri.Tajuddin. The white carrots grown in Uttar Pradesh make their way to Delhi and are more expensive than red carrots. Red carrots typically cost Rs. 10 to Rs. 15 a kilo while this can range between Rs. 55 to Rs. 65. Also the season for this short, sunehari gajar halwa makes its presence mid December and lasts typically till end February. The establishment starts its winter saga with typical lal or red gajar halwa and ends the season with the red gajar halwa. The cooking begins at 4 am in the morning and takes around 1 to 2 hours like the traditional gajar halwas before it can reach the shop shelf. It is kept in a huge cauldron with a burner underneath to serve it warm. The black carrot which is used for making Kanji is made into a halwa in Benares, I am told. Then Shiraz opens up on the other hot favourite in their shop, the Habshi halwa (the name reeks with racial connotations). The typical black colour of the halwa reveals Shiraz is got because of the addition of spices to the halwa. He explains, “we use about 70 spices which make up the masala. These are ground and added to the milk along with samnak (sprouted wheat which is dried and ground finely) and the milk is brought down to granulated form. It is further processed and cooled. The process easily takes 10 – 12 hours.” It is however the list of spices which after much cajoling Shiraz reveals in bits, the cloves leads the pack with elaichi, nutmeg, cinnamon, javitri…several other herbs like shatvari. Though 70 spices is still far off… The ground masalas give warmth to the body and is considered ideal for winters. This recipe was concocted by Shiraz’s grandfather who had a special interest in cooking. Several others also sell Habshi halwa, each establishment has its own recipe. The bylanes of Ballimaran have legendary places to pick up this. The Aloe Vera halwa story is interesting as it has been around eons before Aloe vera has become a very sought after plant with many benefits. Shiraz says, “farmers from Rajasthan would come and sell it to us for Rs. 5 a kilo as there were no takers and we were bulk buyers. Now the factories for processing it to other cosmetics etc buy it and we have become smaller buyers.” Shiraz rips the halwa to show me the aloe vera gel which has gone to make the halwa. The process is tedious, the leaves of aloe are scrapped and the gel is collected. This is boiled in water and reduce to form a gum or resin like substance. This is added to milk, samnak and allowed to cook, when it starts to reduce, sugar is added and then left to process for a few more hours. After which it is cooled and cut into pieces. Aloe vera is a coolant, so to make it fit for winter months, it is again spiced up. Spices are trade secrets! The balancing draws out the goodness of aloe vera and the warmth for winters is provided by the spices. Siraz adds, “we make a special geekwar halwa using saffron and other costly ingredients. This is made between 25th or so of December to 26th or so of January. It sells at Rs. 2000/- a kilo. It is ideal for cold climates, a lot of NRI population demands it and uses it throughout harsh winters overseas.” Both these halwas can be kept for a month or so. Aloe vera is available at various joints also. Edible Gondh comes from the sap of Acacia trees, available as a crystal, it has thickening, emulsifying, thickening properties. It is fried and adorns the halwa. It gives warmth to the body and hence is plenty of demand during winter months. Gondh is processed with milk, samnak wheat, sugar, edible gum to come up with a gondh ka halwa. It is grainy and rich to taste. It is the aloe vera halwa and habshi halwa which stand out. The blend of spices in Habshi halwa is unusual, it is rare that one can see spices used so strongly in sweets. Shiraz explains, “we add all good ingredients that are good for the body and give it in a sweet form. People consume it as a sweet but it does wonders to their body.” I am a huge fan of gajar ka halwa, this spread somehow has made me keep the red gajar halwa in the back burner for some time!

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