In an episode of Masterchef Australia I watched recently, the contestants were asked to “hero” the vegetables and make them palatable to meat-lovers. It was an interesting episode and I made mental notes to try out at home and convert the meat-lovers into veggie-lovers although I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool the 11-year-old or his father. It reminded me of the time my father had to go on a no-meat diet and my mother made shaami kababs out of yam. She had us all convinced we were eating regular shaami kebabs. But that also got me thinking about what we Indians usually do to vegetables we don’t like. We make halwa out of them.
Carrot halwa, or gajar ka halwa, is one of the most representative desserts from India. It was also the first thing I learned to make in the kitchen. It helped that my mother oversaw the entire process. Instead of cooking the grated carrots in milk, we sauted the grated carrots in ghee first, added very little milk but more khoya and then sugar. There’s another version that’s even easier to make, because there’s no grating involved. Carrots are cut into pieces and pressure cooked in a little milk to soften them. Then, this is pureed and cooked with khoya and sugar. The resultant halwa is as rich and satisfying as the original without the hassle of grating carrots (and fingers inadvertently).
Converting beetroot into a halwa is also easy. Given its inherent sweetness, you could also go a little easy on the sugar. Apart from these two, I knew that we could make halwa out of bottle gourd and potatoes. To make this, we grate bottle gourd and cook it with sugar over a medium flame. As it releases water, it will get cooked in it and once the water dries up, you can crumble khoya and add to it along with fried nuts and raisins. But this got me curious. So, I posed a question on Twitter, asking people if they knew what other vegetables could be turned into halwa and the answers blew me away.
I got to know about the popular South Indian kasi halwa, made from ash gourd. But there were also some unusual replies such as onion, garlic, tomato, green chillies and capsicum as well. I thought these vegetables were too full of their own flavour to become desserts, but apparently these are prepared across India. The green chilli halwa is made by boiling chillies in water for 10 minutes to remove the heat, while there are also spicy-sweet halwas made from turmeric and ginger. Sweet potato and moong dal were also mentioned and I know from experience that the channa dal halwa served at most Muslim weddings is one of the reasons I try not to miss dessert even if I don’t get to eat the biryani.
Food blogger Nandita Iyer mentioned halwa made from green peas and raw papaya, and a visit to her blog will also take you to the steps needed to make halwa from pumpkin and carrot. Then, historian Rana Safvi also mentioned that halwa can also be made from kheema. I can’t quite fathom what that would taste like and I don’t know if I’d be adventurous enough to even try!
The replies made me marvel at this innate inventiveness. To convert something as strong tasting as garlic and even bitter gourd into a halwa takes talent, resourcefulness and a stretch of imagination — along with a good dose of confidence. Of course, with the Keto diet being so popular these days, one of my friends suggested that maybe we should try to make halwa out of cauliflower. Who knows? Maybe someone already has! I’ll stick with the humble gajar ka halwa, thank you.
This piece was first published in The Indian Express, 26th November, 2017