Gourmet Files: Flatter the carrot?

Raw, it's tolerable; cooked, too sweet. But the carrot comes into its own in gajar ka halwa.

January 02, 2010 04:02 pm | Updated November 16, 2021 09:27 am IST



Fine words don't butter parsnips – but/Know your onions, spill the beans/Sing Hallelujah! Let's flatter the carrot/So much more versatile than greens/Deep purple from Afghanistan/Day-glo orange Dutch/Loved by those who wait for Easter/Living in a hutch/Oh how shall I cook thee?/Let me count the ways/Like Elizabeth Carrot Browning/I come to praise ‘n braise/Slice ‘n dice ‘n sauté/Bake in cakes ‘n dunk in dips/Sweeter than a mars bar/Deep-fried chantenay with chips.../And I'll repeat that like a parrot/All hail the golden king of crops.

“The 24 carat carrot”. Elvis McGonagall, BBC Radio 4

“Carrot. A root vegetable of the Umbelliferae family... and thus related to parsley, dill, and celery...although originally native to Afghanistan, is now found all over the world in many shapes, sizes, and colours.” (Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kipple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas.)

Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food writes that the wild carrot, which grows in much of W. Asia and Europe, has a tiny and acrid tasting root, and it took a very long time for the modern cultivated carrot, D. Carota var sativa , to appear. He cites a list of plants grown in the royal garden of Babylon in the 8th century BC. Here, carrots are included among aromatic herbs; not vegetables. So they were probably being grown for their leaves or seeds, and not the table. He says, “...there is little or no evidence to suggest that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed eating the roots.”

Fermented variety

I can't quite bring myself to agree with the poet, but strongly endorse the food historians on both counts: that the carrot is common, and that it needn't be eaten. Raw, it's tolerable. Cooked, it's too sweet. I'm sure it's good for the eyes and all that, but the only quality I appreciate is its colour. And it lends itself to fermentation, so pickle and kanji are delicious, in both of which all you can taste is sourness and spices, and the carrot's own taste is irrelevant.

In a halwa, though, carrots are transformed. And as common as the vegetable is, so is gajar ka halwa, the winter dessert of reduced carrots and milk. The trouble is that every housewife, part-time cook, restaurateur and caterer attempts it, and what you get most often is a travesty, not the real thing. Like the carrot itself, its halwa comes in many shapes, sizes and colours. The worst and commonest is the jhat-pat housewife's pressure-cooked variety. This recipe has been forced on me by many aunts and cousins, not noted for their prowess in the kitchen: grate and pressure cook red carrots, add milk and sugar, and voila! You have gajar ka halwa . No, no, no, I want to tell them. Some dishes cannot be made in a jiffy; if you don't have the patience, unwrap a bar of chocolate. Or call this Steamed Carrots. But not gajar ka halwa . The other smear on the gajrela escutcheon is the neighbourhood halwai's version, which is bright red, speckled with white. They probably boil carrots and sprinkle raw white khoya on top. Vile.

If I want bright, fresh red carrots, I'll go au naturel : just wash one and eat it raw. But halwa has to be rich and intense, the milk concentrated and the carrots caramelised. It is a time and fuel-consuming enterprise, and so heavy on the fats that anyone with a conscience will eat just a spoonful. It makes sense, then, to cook a large quantity and freeze it, because the hours of cooking will be about the same for half a kilo or five.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

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