How a halwa with a racist name became a winter favorite

How a halwa with a racist name became a winter favorite

Purani Dilli is a melting pot of old and new, which contributes to its multicultural appeal. The fortified city has areas like Shahjahanabad, Chawri Bazaar, Sita Ram Bazar, Matia Mahal – and the self-explanatory Khau Gali – filled with great food and shops full of history. One such place is a candy store called Sheeren Bhawan in Chitli Kabar. For 70 years, it has lured people with unique halwas made with khalis (clean) ghee.

One of their prized sweets is a traditional winter delicacy called habshi halwa. It is made with sprouted wheat, milk, sugar, ghee, nuts and spices such as cardamom, saffron, kewra (rose water). That hallwa boiled for hours and the end result is an addictive sticky and crispy texture.

But the name habshi is problematic with a racist undertone. It is a Urdu word that refers to people on the African continent or those with a darker skin tone. This dark brown hallwa has a color similar to most Indian dishes, which i.a. mithais, sauce and sabzis. For history-loving food enthusiasts, like me, it’s a mystery how one hallwa got a politically incorrect name.

In my exploration to find the origin of habshi halwa, I visited Rampur in late 2021, which is believed to be its birthplace. I met Haris Raza, granddaughter of Amanat Ulla Khan, who is considered to be the man who popularized habshi halwa. Amanat Bhai ki Purani Dukaan is not very difficult to find in the Kuncha Lala Miyan area of ​​Rampur. Haris Raza said that this recipe has been in the family since Nawab Raza from Rampur (1908 -1966). According to him, Nawab used to enjoy the Sahab habshi halwa, commonly known as halwa sohan and Rampur.

Also read | Do you want a perfect winter dish? Try this hot bajra bhakri with jaggery

In the years before the split, Rampur had a significant population of Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and perhaps hallwa can be traced to their kitchens. In addition, Rohilla has Pathans samnak (wheat germ) hallwa; is considered to be the forerunner of habshi halwa or halwa sohan.

Haris Raza shared a broad overview of the recipe without revealing too many details. Wheat grains are sifted and soaked in water for two to three days. When they germinate, they are dried and ground into flour. Milk is added to the flour for a thick and lumpy paste. Then it is cooked in ghee and other ‘secret’ ingredients. The longer it is cooked, the darker it gets, and the cooking time can be anywhere between six and eight hours. There are certain signs that indicate whether habshi halwa has been done well – it ghee should not be seen on top, but it should leave an impression on the finger if you prick it and the texture should be tough and not stick to the teeth.

One time hallwa is ready, Harsis distributes it on a tray and decorates it with finely chopped pistachios. Eventually he cuts hallwa in small cubes and it is ready to be sold.

There is an unsurpassed love for habshi halwa, be it in Rampur or Dilli. In Delhi, however, you will typically find that the demand for it increases in the winter, but in Rampur it has become a year-round delicacy. Given this hallwa was perhaps introduced by Rohilla Pathans, I reached out to my friends in Karachi. Rida Bilgrami, a food and culture journalist, mentioned that she grew up eating habshi halwa, and for her this was not limited to winter. A few of her favorite stores are Abdul Khalik Sweets, Ahmad Sweet and Ambala Sweets in Karachi.

Bilal Hasan, a Karachi-based doctor and cultural writer, says that while growing up traveling from Karachi to Lahore and crossing Multan by train, they always got boxes with habshi halwa when it stopped for a few minutes in Multan. Now his favorite store is here habshi halwa is Rewri in Multan.

When my brother was getting married in Delhi, I took care of it instead of giving boxes box to guests we had habshi halwa. I was told while it was news to me that it is an ancient tradition of Rampuris. Tarana Hussain Khan, author of Begum and Dastan, says in Rampur, boxes off habshi halwa would be distributed to the groom’s family and guests after noon married.

Be it Rampur, Purani Dilli, Karachi or Multan, habshi halwa finds a sweet spot in weddings and festivals as well as qualifies as a winter treat.

Where to find habshi halwa in Old Delhi:

1. Sheeren Bhawan, Chitli Kabar, Old Delhi
2. Kallan Sweets, Matia Mahal, Old Delhi
Phool Singh Doodh Wale, Arya Samaj Gali, Sita Ram Bazaar, Old Delhi
Mohammad Hanif Dairy, Kucha Pandit Rd, Lal Kuan Bazar, Old Delhi

Also read | The many ways to warm up with paya this winter

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