My father always sets aside the last luchi after a luchi dinner (on Saturday nights, when we indulge in luchi-porota/poori-paratha) for dessert. During summers, he’ll have it with a cold paantua, the Bengali version of the gulab jamun, and in winters, it will be had with a bowl of treacle-ish jhola gur. I never took to having breads with desserts – breads are savoury, in my head, and I am not one to allow mingling – but I must admit that a hot luchi with jhola gur on a winter night is quite delectable.
I hated my mother’s sooji halwa while growing up. She didn’t put enough ghee in it, I complained, or sugar. It tasted too healthy. In my head, if it tasted sweet, it had to be more satisfying. Sweet things are always satisfying. My mother’s sooji halwa wasn’t. I daydreamed that other kids in other houses must be having delicious “haalua” – as we pronounce it – and I hated the fact that I was missing out on a childhood experience. In Pather Panchali, the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, there is a descriptive paragraph about a young Apu, torn from the village and his family, in abject poverty, having a bowl of Mohanbhog in a big silver jaam baati or king-sized ceremonial bowl at his father’s boss’s house. Apu is wide-eyed at how amazing the dessert tastes. He had never tasted anything like that before. The ghee runs down his chin. He has dreams of that Mohanbhog when he comes home, knowing well that his family didn’t have the means to cook something that fancy. Pather Panchali was course material for my ninth grade. Unlike Apu, I remember coming home from school and asking my mother to make Mohanbhog. She turned me down. This was when ghee was bad for you. How things have changed. The elusive Mohanbhog, a rich rava-based dessert cooked with ghee, thickened with milk and malai, and topped with cashews and nuts, remained an elusive dream.
Until I found its more flamboyant cousin in Bombay’s Mohammed Ali Road.
The orange sooji halwa, served with a big, flat bhatura (quite incorrectly referred to as a poori), is a masjid mohalla staple. You will find halwa-poori stands or shacks around mosques as it is a common after-namaz snack. In Pakistan, it is supposed to be a breakfast option, but in Bombay and Kolkata, things do stir up mostly in the evenings.
The halwa is a poorer cousin of the Mohanbhog. It’s not cooked in milk and malai, but attains its gleeful fudgy-sticky consistency from roasting the rava/semolina in ghee for a long time, till it is aromatic, golden, and sand-like, so that it absorbs more water and fat. Imagine every tiny grain of rava tumescent with fat and sugar, creating a lump that is greasy but doesn’t film the roof of your mouth, slightly jiggly, chewy and sticky, and pairs wonderfully with a hot, flaky piece of poori. Because the halwa doesn’t find respect and presence in sweet shops, it is garnished with various toppings to make it seem more alluring — dessicated coconut, nuts, candied cherries, and tutti-frutti. Also, the shocking orange colour is supposed to be from saffron, but when you get 250 grams for forty bucks, you know it’s edible dye. I have stared at mountains of bright orange halwa on broad, round trays with high rims, with enormous kadhais frying roundels of poori beside them, in Mahim and Md Ali Road. An inexpensive snack, sometimes a dessert, maybe a meal. Unlike the high-brow Mohanbhog, the halwa poori is more accessible, pliable, and democratic.
Every year, during Ramzan, I spend at least half the holy month, trudging through the alleys of various neighbourhoods in Bombay, with groups of hungry carnivores, helping them explore iftar spreads. On one such walk, about five to six years back, I decided to stop at this halwa poori guy’s shack, right next to the Minara masjid. He served a plate of “zyaada halwa dena, poori thoda sa” (more halwa, less poori – my sweet-savoury pet peeve kicking in) on two quarters of a newspaper, a warm, generous lump of bright orange halwa slapped on a piece of poori. The flavour is quite one note: It’s sweet. Nothing complicated, quite child-like, straight up candy. The fat makes the sugar irresistible. But the actual hero in a portion of halwa poori is the texture. The grainy fudge-like halwa has a non-sticky chewiness, a delightful mastication, complemented by the poori’s crunch. The dessicated coconut helps add a hint of bland to an otherwise overwhelming mouthful. The nuts bring in a much needed bite. Without all of these elements, the halwa, just by itself, lacks personality. The Minara masjid guy has been my go-to halwa poori guy for all these years. I don’t know his name.
The halwa poori is a trampy dish. But Indian roadside’s trampiest offerings are the definition of ugly delicious. From the humble phuchka to the bhelpuri, a hot vada pav on a rainy day with chai, or a dahi papdi chaat on a summer evening, India’s roadside regulars are packed with flavour – often overwhelming and confusing, but never failing to pack a punch.
This Ramzan, Md Ali Road seems very far away. I suddenly had a strong craving for my favourite orange halwa one night. I had never made it, but a quick search pulled out an easy recipe. The roasting of the rava in the ghee is the most crucial step. It was almost time for sehri when the rava turned aromatic, sand-like, and golden. In the next few minutes, with a splash of water and another chunk of ghee, it bloomed to life, growing into a bubbling, fuming organism as I stirred furiously, thickening it, watching it leave the sides of the kadhai, and hold its own shape. Then when the sugar is added, as the sugar melts, it becomes glossier, smoother, finally letting go, finally settling into a more comfortable, silkier consistency. After that, you just fold in the pre-fried nuts and raisins and let it rest for a while. I served a bowl for myself that morning, bahaut zyaada halwa, no poori, thinking about my halwa poori guy next to Minara masjid, wondering if I will see him this month.