As a kid, I remember both my paternal and maternal grandmothers preparing all kinds of delicious and saccharine as an evening snack for all of us hungry broods, who used to visit them during our summer vacations. And they did not prepare the Halwa just by using the traditional ingredients of Sooji (semolina), Aata (wheat flour) or Besan (gram flour). They were concocted by some very peculiar ingredients like papaya, singadha (water chestnut), bottle gourd, pumpkin, watermelon, almond, moong daal, and what not! No matter how much fights we kids had among ourselves or the amount of chaos we used to create in the house, the Halwa used to bring us all together as one collected entity of sweet lovers. Yes, this is what the dish means to all of us. Halwa occupies some part of our memory and consciousness and it has something in it for everyone.
The word ‘halwa’ comes from the Arabic word ‘Hulw’, which means sweet and is believed to have entered the English language between 1840 and 1850. As per ‘Guzishta Lucknow’ by Abdul Halim Sharar, a 20th century author and historian, Halwa originated in Arabic lands and came to India via Persia. This original Middle Eastern dessert was made from date paste and milk.
In her book ‘Feasts and Fasts’, Colleen Taylor Sen writes that the Halwa arrived in India during the Delhi Sultanate, from the early 13th to the mid-16th century. As per some other legends, the method of cooking Halwa has its roots in the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman, the tenth and longest reigning Sultan of the Empire, was so fond of desserts that he had a separate kitchen for only sweet dishes, Halwa being one of them.
As per findings by food historians, the first known recipe of Halwa appeared in the 13th century Arabic text, ‘Kitab al-Tabikh’ (The Book of Dishes) written by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Karīm. It mentions eight different varieties of Halwa and their recipes. Also, two of the earliest Indian cities to have Arab influence were the coastal towns of Karachi and Kozhikode and it forms an integral part of food traditions in these cities.
Today, there are numerous varieties of Halwa available all across the country. ‘Hari Mirch ka Halwa’ from Pune, ‘Cholar Dal Halwa’ from West Bengal, ‘Anda Halwa’ from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, ‘Kashi Halwa’ from Karnataka, ‘Karutha Haluwa’ from Kerala, are some of the few assortments of Halwas that one could get in India. One much loved variant is ‘Gajar ka Halwa’. Carrots were indigenous to Afghanistan and it found its way to India through Dutch. It began to be grown in Punjab and was later experimented with, which gave result in the form of Gajar ka Halwa.
Even though the origin of Halwa could be traced back to Arabia, it could not be more Indian than it already is. It has such influence in the subcontinent that the sweet confectioners are known as ‘Halwais’ till today, and will always continue be called so.
Halwa came to India and won hearts of all the sweet lovers. Just as my grandmothers’ Halwa used to bring all of us naughty cousins together, different variants of Halwa brings all of India together as one huge sweet loving nation, with the sweet dish at the heart of it.