No one likes carrots as a child. I feel it’s just too much work. A lot of chomp and very little taste. You add it in mixed vegetable curries and dry fries, and hope that the masala overpowers the fodder. I have curiously tried the various vegetarian dishes restaurants serve — handi, kadhai, Amritsari, Pathani, Patiala, jalfrezi, navratan korma and so on and so forth — and they all just taste like veggie mush cooked in tons of fat and spice. Carrots are generally bundled up with beans, green peppers, and peas as filler material. In vegetarian dishes, paneer or potato is the hero, generally. I don’t need to explain what’s the hero in a non-vegetarian dish. Indian chowmeins and fried rice love adding carrots, beans, peas, and spring onions for colour, and, let’s face it, volume. But we all know it’s the shey-zwaan gravy that steals the show. We’ll discuss the delectable abomination that is the Schezwan sauce, on another day.
So, basically, we don’t care about carrots.
I didn’t either. As a child, I was told that carrots were good for eyesight and made blood. It’s that funny mother thing to say — anything that is red, makes blood, and anything that is bitter, cleans it. I don’t understand how generations of educated mothers — mine included — peddle such nonsense. I hated those carrot circles that would accompany every meal. It is only much later, I would say mid-2000 onwards, that we started referring to carrots as “fibre”. I think mothers realised that they couldn’t sell their make-good-blood hokum to us kids anymore. Fibre sounds more scientific. It is logical too. But that doesn’t make them an easier pill to swallow.
Orange carrots suck. They are tasteless and tough, often quite dry, and deserve to be blitzed and mashed because they have no personality at all. Slip them into a pav bhaji’s bhaji or a mixed vegetable chop, or as a healthy substitute in a side mash with roasts and grills. During salad prep every day these days, they are my nemesis. It is quite a battle to chop these buggers, and my knife has quite dangerously slipped too close to slicing a finger off, twice. I agree that I have terrible chopping skills, but I blame the carrots. Red carrots, the desi gaajar that we reap only in winters, are a delight. They are softer, juicier, sweeter, slimmer, longer, and better looking. The orange all-year-round variety is stubby, short, and just unfriendly. We love the red carrots in my family. Not only because of its blood-making properties, but also because my mother makes the best gaajar ka halwa in the world. I’d challenge any chef or Indian confectionery to try to beat her. I’m sure that they’d fail.
For starters, she does not boil the shredded carrots in milk and turn it into a soggy lumpy mash. It is a long, tiresome process of constantly frying the carrots in ghee, coaxing the water out, till it turns into a clumpy-fudgy-yet-not-limpy-sappy texture. The carrots are supposed to hold their own, glistening with ghee, pampered by khoya and sugar, complemented with generous doses of dry fruits, and fragrant with cardamom and bay leaves. The khoya needs to crumble, but retain a nuttiness, a gravel-y bite, and not be pulped into a thick, soupy consistency that so many places tend to do. Mumbai really doesn’t know how to make the gaajar ka halwa. Other than Olive serving a damn fine rendition during a fashion week lunch a few years ago, I haven’t come across a single one I’d go back for. Last year, I tried out gaajar ka halwa from 117 establishments in the city — restaurants, confectioneries, sweet shops — for late-night research purposes, and not one was up to the mark. So, I rely on my mother’s, and she makes sure she couriers at least two kilos every winter. I store it in the deep freezer, cut out chunks every night, and heat it till the ghee oozes out and turns the halwa glossy again. As if it’s magical powers were restored.
My father is the carrot specialist at home. The right halwa depends on the right carrots. Until he finds the right red, winter carrots, the halwa isn’t made. The man knows his vegetables. I used to hate going vegetable shopping with him as a child —a weekend ritual in almost every Bengali household, when the man shops vegetables, fish, and meat for the whole week —but absolutely love accompanying him now. He’ll press and scratch roots and tubers, shake coconuts, prod off the tail ends of okra, sniff herbs, peer at grooves and ridges of gourds and pumpkins, to ascertain quality, flavour, and freshness. He’ll always ask the seller “Bhalo hobey toh?” or “Mishti hobey toh?” — is it good? Is it fresh? Is it sweet? — and the sellers always reply “Haan, Dada, aajker maal, ekdom nishchinto hoye niye jaan” (yup, it’s today’s haul, don’t worry about it). I don’t know why he asks them. Will a seller ever say “no it’s a week old, I’ve been dabbing it with oil to make it shiny, it’s absolute shit”? My father has specific sellers in the vegetable market he shops from. Over years, he has grown to trust them. But I know he trusts his instincts more. He will still shake and squeeze and poke and prick…
I have learned to shop for vegetables from him, but it’s not like a lot of that knowledge is put to any use. I am mostly shopping at supermarkets who have ready packs, pre-cuts, and pre-chopped. It’s only during the lockdown that I started shopping from local grocers, but, during this time, you take what you get. But I have been snooping around for any remaining bundle of red desi gaajar, some juicy contraband, because the orange ones are really infuriating me these days.
While I do chomp them down in salads, the carrot is the lead hero of very few preparations. The halwa is, of course, one of them. The carrot cake is the other. I absolutely adore a moist, spongy carrot cake lathered with sweet-but-slightly-tart cream cheese frosting. The right kind of carrot is essential for the cake too, because the carrot has to absorb the flavours of the spices — nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger — while the batter absorbs the aroma. Once the carrot soaks in all the flavour during the baking process, it turns almost candied in its texture, adding a chewiness to the cake, which is absolutely decadent. The perfect carrot cake is moist (thanks to the carrots), slightly dense, doesn’t crumble easily, and very lush. A chunky slice paired with a glass of Mysuru Malabar medium roast Americano, please. Cold, no ice, no milk, no sugar. Yes, that’s my coffee order.
I don’t mind the carrot as a mash either, as a side for chicken roasts. Toit, in Mumbai, serves a luscious carrot mash with their almond-crusted chicken. That has been lunch on many afternoons. While we do keep lauding all the “fibre” carrots have, we mustn’t forget that it is packed with carbs too. Hence, it makes for a great, creamy carb addition to game and poultry. It fails to pack a punch with meats, though. Carrot just doesn’t have the tenacity or the starchy stolidity that the potato has to offer.
So, now that it’s not going to be winter anymore for half a year, I am stuck with those pesky orange carrots. I add them to whatever veggie stir fry I am preparing, very aware that they will retain their bite. But, for salads, I have come up with an easy trick that impressed my own socks off – After peeling them with the peeler, I start shaving long strips off the carrot till only its thin spine is left. Shaving it is faster, produces thinner — and hence, easier to chew — strips, and my fingers have nothing to worry about anymore. They look great in salads — move over zoodles, carretti (carrot + spaghetti, if you didn’t get it) is the new thing — and if I want smaller pieces, they can be easily chopped up. I have been chortling gleefully at my own invention.