Halwa Tastes Like Sweet Nostalgia
As a child, I used to bite my grandmother’s shoulder until I got a fresh batch of halwa. Now, I prepare it every Diwali.
As told to Megha McSwain
Palak Patel is the host of new digital show The Diwali Menu. Watch episodes here.
Much of the fun of celebrating Diwali is indulging in all of the Indian confections – and one of my favorites among them is halwa. Like hand-decorated Christmas cookies or a fluffy chocolate babka, the sweet, semolina porridge is rooted in holiday tradition. It’s a rustic dessert, made from combining semolina with clarified butter and sugar, and usually reserved for celebratory occasions. But, having grown up in Central India, it was often made in my house, and it’s a tradition I still cherish.
I was born and raised in Madhya Pradesh, in a multigenerational household with my mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousin under the same roof. I was introduced to halwa at an early age and couldn't get enough of it as a child. When my grandmother slept in the middle of the night, I would bite her shoulder or pinch her until she woke, so she could make me a fresh batch. I was the eldest of eight children in the house, including my siblings and cousins, and always got my way.
Beyond my midnight cravings, this dessert was typically prepared in our home during Diwali, the Hindu new year and festival of lights; on special occasions like a dinner party, birthday or if we had guests over; and after holding puja, or worship. In a religious setting, halwa is used as prasad, or an offering, made to a deity. After puja, the offering is shared among the worshippers and considered a blessing. This tradition is followed at temples in India and even at one’s home on auspicious days. Similarly, mithai, bite-size confections presented in a bountiful spread, are a large part of religious and cultural celebrations in India.
If you’ve never had halwa or mithai before, each can be amped up in a variety of ways, incorporating additions like nuts, toppings, spices and rose petals. In the preparation of each, it’s possible to get as fancy or remain as rustic as you prefer. In our family, we enjoyed halwa in its simplest form, and at most, added cardamom for a warm, fragrant finish.
Halwa isn’t a complex dessert, nor does it take a lot of time, calling only for 15 minutes on the stove, during which your full attentiveness is needed. The semolina must first be dry roasted, resulting in a nutty smell as it cooks. I was taught not to rush this process. After dry-roasting, the other ingredients (sugar, ghee, nuts) are added, with liquid incorporated gently, so that it evenly distributes. The result is a mixture that mimics the texture of grits or polenta. It’s served hot once ready, but halwa tastes just as good when it’s lukewarm, room temperature or cold. There’s no wrong way to eat it! Nor does it matter what time of day. It’s lovely at teatime or after a meal with a piping hot cup of chai.
Halwa has become synonymous with religious and cultural festivities in India, but the dessert actually boasts Persian origins, where it was originally crafted with mashed dates and milk. It became prevalent in Indian cities with Arab influences, eventually evolving into the dish we know it as today, but still varying in style from region to region. In Punjab, yellow food coloring is commonly added to halwa, while in Gujarat, it is colorless; in central India, it boasts an almond-brown hue.
My family and I moved to Atlanta in 1990, but we still very much prepare halwa during Diwali, and other occasions. Many of my friends who I have made halwa for, love it and note what a comforting dish it is. In my iteration, I reduce the amount of sugar I use. I love the soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture with just a hint of sweetness – just sweet enough.
It may be just a few simple ingredients, but there was just something special about the way my grandmother made halwa. It has left a lifelong impression on me and why I continue to honor it today.