By Vasundhara Chauhan
Noodle samosa? Vanilla barfi? Chana pizza? It's fun to be cruel about them, but where would we be without innovative halwais? Still eating alu samosa and chana bhatura and khoya barfi and Karachi halwa. Same old, same old. I remember, not so long ago, that when guests arrived suddenly - or even with notice - at teatime, one sent out to the local halwai for samosas and jalebis.
And as time went on, the confections on display became more and more embellished and complicated, like their names. A Tabassum could be a pale green lozenge reeking of synthetic pineapple essence and a Pakeezah could be a round white rose, rose-flavoured, naturally, with layers of whorls topped with a red "cherry" made of dyed and sweetened petha... but a rose by any other name... as long as it's sweet.
Because hulw, the Arabic root, means sweet and a halwai makes and sells halwa, sweets. In 7th century Arabia, the word meant a paste of dates kneaded with milk, but by the 9th century, having assimilated Persian influences, it came to denote atta or semolina dry roasted or fried and then sweetened, what in our parts we call halwa. Although in all of West Asia halwa means all manner of sweets; and my father, who reads a little Arabic, recounts how, in Beirut, he entered a shop full of different mithai and the shop - or its wares - was called halwaiyat.
Halwais are irreplaceable. The joy and wonder at biting into a crisp jalebi, miraculously filled with sweet juice, or the soft ghee-filled sweetness of a freshly made laddoo, crumbling at first touch - for these alone halwais should be declared a protected species.
Can the most accomplished home cook, who can manage mal puas and barfi, or, a little higher up the scale, rasgullas and even ras malai, make an imarti? This, unlike a jalebi, which is made of fermented flour (or besan, semolina or rice flour) is made of urad flour batter, fried and soaked in syrup, and was originally a Rajasthani Raj Bhog, first presented by Rajputs to the Mughals, and then spread, along with the Mughal empire. But quite apart from the vast repertoire of halwa, Bengali and Rajasthani sweets in a halwai shop, what takes me back again and again are the savouries.
To start with, chaat. Gol gappas and papdi, crisp, khatta-meetha with tart green dhania chutney and sweet sonth, gur and imli, filled with finely chopped potatoes, cooled with beaten dahi and as hot with pepper and chillies as I want. And even before I've finished the chaat my eyes are glued to the huge tawa, the iron griddle on which alu tikkis are being slow fried.
That tawa, as big as the wheel of a juggernaut, has a few dozen tikkis arranged neatly around the edge. The heat there appears very mild, because these freshly shaped cutlets are barely gold, waiting for an order of "ek plate tikki!" until two are slid into the centre of the tawa, which appears flat, but must be having a slight depression at the centre, because a shallow puddle of oil waits there for the final fryings. So tikkis, smothered with green chutney and reddish sonth, are eaten with two flimsy aluminium teaspoons, barely sturdy enough the cut through the crisp but slightly chewy outer crust. Apparently the mashed potato mixture has no salt, to prevent sogginess, but the peethi filling is spicy enough to compensate.
And then starts my usual dilemma: what to eat next. So I start watching what orders are being delivered to other tables. A word here about the tables. I prefer to eat the gol gappa-papdi course on the street, standing in a tight cluster with others around the chaat wala, so that, at every mouthful, I can ask for more something or less something else to be added.
The tikki course (sometimes varied with samosas and chanas) I eat at a table. Most of these halwai shops have largeish halls with a high decibel level and turnover. Waiters trot from table to laminated table, serving the familiar chana bhatura and what has now left the confines of Udupi eateries, the masala dosa, - accompanied by two small steel bowls filled to brimming with sambhar and coconut chutney. But all that is pass.
Lately I have seen samosas that, when cut open, spilled not potatoes but noodles. The waiter explained pityingly that this was a chow mien samosa and it was served with soya and chilli sauce. One lives and learns. And then I saw on the menu a paneer chow mien, which needed no explanation. Though I couldn't understand what was wrong with plain old chicken and egg, it was plain that vegetarians too wanted "Chinese", and a halwai's would serve anything - Chinese, continental or Italian - as long as it contained no meat.
The only dish on the plastic covered menu card that defied this convention was "Chana Murghi". Chanas with chicken sounded good, but apparently I was wrong. No chana and no murgh. What they meant was chhena murki, or, in Bangla, chhanaar murki, the little murkis or cubes of sweetened paneer, chhana.
So my faith in the staples remains staunch, and a creeping respect for innovation is growing.
The writer is a food writer based in New Delhi, India. Email: email@example.com
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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