Carrot halwa, gajar ka halwa, is a classic Indian dessert that's incredibly tasty and comforting. It's primarily carrots and milk, cooked down into a soft, sweet pudding, gently spiced with cardamom. It takes a little patience but it's easy to make and well worth the wait.
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Gajar ka halwa, or carrot halwa as it's often called in English, is one of the first Indian dishes I made when I was a teenager. That time, I made a large batch as I was feeding a number of people so it took quite a while to cook down. Making a smaller quantity, however, is that bit quicker, and just as delicious.
Origins of gajar ka halwa
"Gajar" means carrot in Hindi and halwa is a type of sweet pudding. This carrot pudding is one of the better known types of halwa outside India, but in Indian you'll find a variety of other kinds, some of them found regionally. Carrot halwa is particularly found in Northern India, though it is popular across the country.
Halwa, however, is not originally an Indian dish. Some accounts suggest it is originally Persian, and then became popular across the Middle East. Others suggest it was maybe originally Turkish, made in the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire.
Either way, apparently, the earliest written reference is in the 13th century in the Arabic Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes). "Halwa" derives from the Arabic word "hulw" meaning sweet. It then travelled to India, through the trading in the region, where it was adopted and evolved.
The original ingredients in halwa were some form of starch, some fat and a sweetener. You might then add flavorings like spices, nuts or dried fruits. In India, you'll find many base ingredients, as I mentioned, like lentils, vermicelli or in this case, carrot, each made into a sweet pudding. Carrots were native to Persia and brought to India by the Dutch.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, a couple of main versions have evolved. In Greece and Turkey, halvah is typically made with semolina and honey, while in Israel, the base is ground sesame seeds. Each has it's own tasty qualities, so I recommend trying any version you can!
Carrot halwa ingredients
This tasty dessert has only a short list of ingredients:
- Carrots - these are the main bulk of the dessert and give the lovely bright color. However, think more carrot cake than savory ways with carrot as yit doesn't taste "carroty" in the end dish. In fact, I have been known to serve this and people not work out what it is.
- Milk - this is in effect the cooking liquid that reduces down and becomes more sweet as a result. Some recipes use sweetened condensed milk, at least in part, to help speed up the cooking. However I think you get a better overall texture starting with milk, plus you can then control the sweetness. Use full fat/ whole milk so you get the milk solids in the end dish - it's a much better flavor.
- Sugar - while the milk and cooked carrots add a little sweetness, they still need a little help so you add some sugar or, if you prefer, jaggary to sweeten the dish.
- Ghee or butter - this adds a little richness to the dessert and gives it a slightly glossy feel at the end of cooking.
- Cardamom - this adds a lovely aromatic flavor to the dish. Some choose to add cardamom powder so it mixes through, but I like using whole pods and letting them infuse the mixture as it cooks. Just be sure to gently crush them so they open up a little and the flavor mingles better.
- Raisins - these are not in all verisons, and you can skip if you like, but personally I think they pair well flavor-wise and I like the little dots of color.
- Nuts - nuts add a lovely contrasting bit it texture and work so well flavor-wise. You can use cashews or almonds here, as you have.
Making carrot halwa
This Indian carrot pudding is easy to make, but the one thing you really need is patience. It takes time to cook down, and there's no really getting away from that. True, you can speed things up with a pressure cooker/instant pot cook, but I admit I kind of prefer the traditional carrot halwa method cooking slowly over time.
The good news, though, is you can largely leave it alone with only the odd stir now and then. I recommend getting it started then working on something else nearby so you can keep an eye on it. As you have less liquid left, you will need to stir a little more often to aovid burning.
To prepare, first you peel and grate carrots - if you have a food processor, this speeds up the process, otherwise take care if grating by hand. Then combine the grated carrots with the milk and cardamom in a pot/pan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring now and then, so that the milk reduces to almost nothing. It will take a while, so be patient.
Once the liquid has virtuaally gone, add the ghee or butter. This adds a little richness to the dessert. Then, add the sugar. Make sure you don't jump ahead on this part as it really doesn't cook down in the same way after.
Then, mix in the nuts and raisins and it's ready.
How to serve gajar ka halwa
You can serve carrot halwa either warm or at room temperature, as you prefer. Particularly if you serve it warm, it pairs really well with some ice cream on the side.
This is a pretty rich dessert, so you typically only want a relatively small portion. That said, it is delicious, so it's tempting to come back for more!
You can make this ahead, or store leftovers in the fridge until needed, as suits. Simply store in a sealed container for up to around 2 - 3 days. If you have made it ahead, it works best to gently re-heat on the stove, if serving warm.
Maybe in part because of the time it takes, or because of the rich flavor, this is a popular dish to serve at festivals and on special occasions. It is particularly popular for Diwali, but you'll find it served for other festivals, weddings and more.
Carrot halwa, gajar ka halwa, is one of those desserts that takes a simple, short list of ingredients and makes them into something special and quite unlike what you started with. This carrot pudding is rich, comforting, smooth and sweet with a lovely aromatic flavor from the cardamom. Well worth a little patience to enjoy.
Try these other dishes great for Diwali and more:
- Pumpkin halwa (a pumpkin variation on the theme)
- Paneer tikka (tasty spiced paneer skewers)
- Cauliflower pakora (tasty spiced and crisp veggie bites)
- Plus get more Indian recipes and dessert recipes in the archives.
Carrot halwa (gajar ka halwa)
- 1 lb carrots
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 ½ cups milk whole/full fat
- 1 tablespoon butter or ghee
- ½ cup sugar or can use jaggery
- 2 tablespoon slivered almonds or chopped, roasted unsalted cashews
- 2 tablespoon raisins optional
- Peel and coarsely grate the carrots. Lightly crush the cardamom pods so that they crack open slightly but still hold the seeds inside.
- Place the carrots, milk and cardamom pods in a heavy based pot/pan, ideally relatively wide and place over a medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until there is almost no liquid left. Cook over a steady simmer, reducing the heat if needed so that it doesn't burn but you want it bubbling enough so the liquid evaporates. This will take around 35-45 minutes or so, depending on the temperature, width of the pot etc. You will not need to stir much to start but will need to more as it cooks down to avoid the bottom sticking and burning.
- Once the liquid has largely gone, add the butter or ghee and mix in. Cook a couple minutes more until the butter is absorbed and there is no liquid left.
- Now add the sugar and mix through. The mixture will become glossy as the sugar dissolves. Remove the cardamom pods at this point to avoid having them in the end dish. Cook a minute more then add the nuts and raisins, if using. Mix through and either serve warm or allow to cool if serving at room temperature.
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