Explained: A sweet tale of how India imported halwa, and made it its own

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Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman along with MoS Anurag Thakur at the halwa ceremony on January 20. (Source: Twitter/ Ministry of Finance)

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday (January 20) presided over the Halwa ceremony at North Block, marking the commencement of the Union Budget's printing process.

The ceremony, a longstanding tradition, is a marker of how cuisines and cultures from various countries poured into India, and were adopted and adapted to make them uniquely our own.

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Halwa is a ubiquitous dessert in India, found across the country with local variations — the Sindhi halwa, Mohanbhog, the Tirunelveli Halwa, even gosht (meat) halwa. It is important in various religious traditions — Gurdwaras serve halwa as 'kada prasad', and an important ritual during Navratri for Hindus is feeding young girls 'halwa poori'.

Yet, this super-common Indian dish is actually an import — brought in from Turkey many centuries ago.

'Halwa' comes from the Arabic word 'hulw', which means sweet.

According to food historian KT Achaya, halwa, “when first used in English denoted a Turkish confection of ground sesame seeds and honey”.

The Indian halwa as we know it today is a richer version, grain-based (sooji halwa, atta halwa), vegetable-based (carrot halwa, gourd halwa), the grander almond halwa, and some non-vegetarian variants such as gosht halwa and anda (egg) halwa, most drenched with ghee (clarified butter) or khoya (condensed milk).

Historian Rana Safi says: "Several books mention the origins of Halwa in Arabic lands. But such was the influence and spread of the dish that confectioners in India are called 'halwais' till today."

The “jauzi halwa” of Lucknow, made with almonds, milk and saffron. This halwa is very warm and helps build immunity. (Express photo: Asad Rehman)

Safi cites 'Guzishta Lucknow (Lucknow, the last phase of an Oriental Culture)' by Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926). "In Guzishta Lucknow, Sharar writes that taking the name into consideration, halwa originated in Arabic lands and came to India via Persia," says Safvi.

Some stories claim the halwa originated, or at least, was modified, in the kitchens of Suleiman the Magnificient, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. The emperor's kitchen had a special section dedicated to sweet dishes alone — the Helvahane or The Dessert and Candy Room.

In 'The Illustrated Foods of India' (2009), Achaya writes: “In India, it [halwa] connotes softly firm desserts made from a range of materials: Wheat flour, wheat grits, vermicelli, Bengal gram flour, fruits like banana and date, nuts like almond and vegetables like pumpkins and dates.”

Orange carrots came into being in the 17th century, when Dutch growers decided to pay tribute to William of Orange. These found their way to Punjab, and thanks to their sweet taste, helped give birth to gajar ka halwa.

It is not easy to pinpoint the exact period when the halwa entered Indian kitchens. According to Chicago-based food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, the author of 'Feasts and Fasts', the halwa arrived in india during the Delhi Sultanate, from the early 13th to the mid 16th century.

Safi too says that 'Nimatnama, or the Book of Delights', a medieval cookbook written for the Sultan of Malwa in 1500, mentions the halwa and its recipe.

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That the dish came to India via trade routes is also borne out by the fact that two important port cities — Karachi and Kozhikode — have their own, distinct version of the halwa till today.

Innovations seem to have been added to it over the centuries, a testimony to how much the local populace adopted it and experimented with it.