Winter never comes to Mumbai, where I live, but in most parts of northern India and the hills, winter is well on its way. There is a nip in the air and the temperatures are mild and brilliant; away the dog days are full of sweat and blisters. The sky is clearer except in Delhi where nothing is ever clear. Autumn, if there is ever such a season in most parts of the country, has left its mark of amber on the ground, and smoky gray is the color of the season. As the year draws to a close, India will celebrate a flurry of colorful festivals to make it sad, but already now the smoke is rising from the winter cooking bonfire.
The winter in India brings with it all sorts of root vegetables, tubers and leafy greens. Carrots, beets, radishes, sweet potatoes, spinach, mustard greens, fenugreek leaves and green peas, and with these vegetables come winter dishes. Starts with carrots – ‘Gajar Ka Halwa’. We all know ‘Gajar Ka Halwa’, but in the old streets of Lucknow in Rahmat Ali’s candy store I ate the most delicious ‘Black Gajar Ka Halwa’. These almost black carrots are deep purple in color and are full of antioxidants and the kind of good properties found in blueberries, grapes and blackberries. This carrot grows only in winter and adds an earthy flavor to the halwa, which is made less sweet than usual, without added khoya and ghee. Nothing keeps you warmer.
Speaking of ‘halwa’, if you can do ‘Gajar ka Halwa’, ‘Doodhi ka Halwa’, ‘Suji ka halwa’, why not ‘Ande ka Halwa’. It is, after all, an old traditional recipe. ‘Halwa’ itself comes from the Arabic word ‘Hulw’, which means sweet, and seems to have arrived in India between the 13th and mid-16th centuries of the Sultanate period and may find its roots in it Ottoman Empire. The use of eggs in desserts is in any case quite common, as in ‘malpuas’ and ‘watalappam’, both made under Eid and special occasions in northern and southern India. With lots of ghee, sugar, milk and patience, ‘Ande Ka Halwa’ is hot as well as warming.
While both spinach and mustard greens are available in abundance in the winter, ‘Sarson ka Saag’ in Punjab will always be made with mustard greens. No cheating with only spinach. To mustard greens, four other vegetables have been added, spinach, ‘bathua’, radish and fenugreek along with onions, tomatoes, green chilies, ginger and garlic and ‘made ka atta’ for thickening. This results in a thick robust broth, which must be poured into fresh white butter and eaten with smoked ‘makki di roti’.
Nothing defines a northern winter more than ‘Sarson Ka Saag’ and ‘Makki di Roti’, as ‘Undiyo’ defines a Gujarati winter, especially ‘Surti Undhiyu’. Made only in winter because Undhiyu uses vegetables that are only available during the season. Like green baby aubergines, purple yam, beans, raw banana and ‘muthias’ made from ‘methi’ leaves. It is a light green dry mixed vegetable dish with a clear advantage of coriander, chili and besan.
In the bitter winter of Kashmir, the heart and hearth are warmed by a ‘Gushtaba’. ‘Gushtaba’ is legendary and takes an honor in any Kashmiri ‘Wazwan’. It is traditionally served as the last dish of the party instead of dessert. ‘Gushtaba’ are chopped mutton balls cooked in spices in a creamy sauce of curd and milk, seasoned with fennel seeds, cloves, bay leaf and cardamom and cinnamon; extremely rich, heavy and perfect for winter.
No winter morning in Agra is complete without a ‘Nihari’. It is a slowly cooked mutton or beef soup. The word ‘Nihar’ finds its etymology from the Arabic word ‘Nahar’, which means ‘morning’. ‘Nihari’ in the days of the Nawab and Mughal kings was slowly cooked with spices all night, ready to be served after the morning prayer. If you walk through the narrow streets of the fortified city, there is ‘Nai Basti’, and if my memory does not agree, ‘nai’ does not mean ‘new’ basti, but basti of ‘nais’ (barber). Inside is the Mughal Nihari, which opens in the wee hours of the morning and large vessels empty in a few hours. Warm, spicy ‘nihari’ with sliced green chili and ‘Khamiri Roti’ is a solid winter craving.
There is so much more food that decreases as the temperature drops. There is ‘Shakarkandi ka chaat’ on the street. Sweet and savory, boiled or fried sweet potatoes. Rajasthan’s Gond Ka Ladoos’ are full of ghee, dry fruits and spices bound together with edible rubber resin. Bengali ‘Nolen Gurer Sandesh’ is a traditional candy made with freshly made ‘chenna’ (paneer) and ‘nolen gur’, a kind of date palm hunter that is only available in winter. Soft, fudgey and melts in your mouth. Nutritious ‘Panjiri’ is a blend of ghee, wheat flour and nuts. ‘Raab’ is a drink with shameless amounts of ghee, a milk and flour.
It seems that everything we eat in the winter in India is extremely biased in terms of ghee and wealth. And why not, after all, we have a culture as rich as ghee.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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