Winter brings red carrots to New Delhi and this has been for as long as memory can recall. In the last decade or so, orange carrots have been available, all through the summer and are useful and colorful, but it is the deep red carrots of December that announce the arrival of the winter cold.
My parents were the first members from their families to take up residence at New Delhi and winter vacations when we went back home to Chennai and Chidambaram meant carrying cartons full of carrots and cauliflowers that were carefully shared out among relatives.
Red carrots became part of seasonal home cooking, because my mother and mother-in-law in their respective homes embraced New Delhi's red carrots with delight and presented them at mealtimes in salads, vegetables, lentils, soups, biryanis, custards and kheer. What we looked forward to the most was the halwa made out of red carrots which could put most other halwas in the shade. The only other halwa that can hold its own is the badaam halwa ( and no, the badaam halwa made by the kitchens of India, is not a patch on the badaam halwas made in South India) but then, we are discussing the the imperial almond here, which transforms into astonishing halwa only for a price.
Gaajar ka halwa, is more elemental fare. Pulled out of the ground, washed, peeled, grated and boiled with milk and ghee; sugared and 'cardamom-ed' and garnished with cashew nuts and almonds and raisins; (my mother-in law preferred pistachios) it makes for a cloudburst of joy on the palate.
Imagine returning home on a cold winter evening, after a day of work at school or college or at the office. The sun dips down by this time after having been quite desultory and listless for the greater part of the day and the evening bleakly edges towards a smog filled night. Hunger beckons and delicious aromas emanate from the kitchen. Guided entirely by the nose, the feet head in the direction of the food. The eyes are fixated around the halwa bowl. Hands find bowls and spoons into which the halwa is scooped and eaten hot off the fire. All this motion is involuntary and free flowing. This is food vinyasa!
It is only after the first mouthful has been savored and has traveled deep into the interiors of one's being, mopping up the coldness of the season and workday blues that stability, emotional and psychological, re-surfaces. The rich red treasure in the bowl, moist and crumbly, interspersed with the crush of raisin and the crunch of almond and the soft bite of the cashew, obliterates every lingering trace of unhappiness. The bowl is replenished and this time it is carried to the dining table. The second phase of gaajar halwa eating involves sitting down at the table, holding the sides of the cup with one hand and scooping out more spoonfuls with the other. This round reiterates the joys of being alive in the cold weather. By this time, the halwa is warming the core of one's being, in the manner of a hot water bottle inside of one's body. Warmth and comfort is now radiating through right down to the last toenail. This is also the point at which you are filled with enough joy and bonhomie and become willing to share halwa with your neighbour.
This has been my gaajar halwa experience, year after year. This is a second generation delicacy. My grandmothers never made gajar halwa, so this winter i tweaked the recipe a little bit and used jaggery instead of sugar to sweeten the carrots. I have on earlier occasions used shakkar, but jaggery has a stronger flavour, so I experimented with a smaller batch of carrots.
One kg of grated carrots are cooked in one kg of full cream milk. When the carrot strands have drunk up all the milk, add around 150 grams of jaggery. Adding jaggery earlier can make the milk curdle. When the jaggery has melted, saute the contents of the bowl in two tablespoons of ghee. Garnish with green and brown cardamoms and your favourite selection of dry fruits. Serve hot and store the rest. My son, currently both fooda-holic and health freak, says that this is the best halwa he has ever had, and that it tastes fantastic even on Day I. (He has a theory that gaajar ka halwa tastes better as it ages). We will take this exploration further, but I do not think I will be sugaring my gaajar halwa anytime in this season.