October 10, 2021
I can still smell the warm, earthy, sweet smells of grated carrots simmering on our stovetop as a young girl. After hours spent at the dining table with my dad hand grating long, orange carrots. My hands would be stained that color for days after. But, it didn't matter. As long as we got our share of Gajar ka Halwa. It felt like a real delicacy that I would never be able to perfect, but then I realized after having my own family that I should at least give it a try. It's easier than you may think, but does require a degree of patience to wait for the carrots, ghee, sugar, and milk to bubble together just so.
Desi Corner: The word Halwa is derived from the Arabic word Hulw, which means sweet, and is thought to have come from India from Turkey. There, it was originally a confection made from ground sesame seeds and honey. In India, the sweet took on a life of its own and now we have halwa made from grain (cream of wheat, whole wheat flour, and legumes), from vegetables (carrots and gourd), and even meat in some areas of India. Confectioners in India to this day are called Halwais. And, this dessert has come to symbolize not only a sweet treat to mark the end of a meal, but an essential addition to commemorate a special event or prayers. As children, we always looked forward to the weekends when mom would take the time to make us a special halwa, as it symbolized the time and love she would take to make such a wonderful treat for us.
Spice Tip: Green cardamom seeds are ground down into a powder and added to this dessert to elevate the taste profile and give it that special touch that screams Indian dessert. Cardamom is known as the 'Queen of Spices' (black pepper is the King), and has always been one of the world's most expensive spices. You can purchase the green pods, take out the seeds and grind them, or buy just the seeds in packets from an Indian grocery store. The husks are edible, but not everyone likes them in their food or dessert (um, my dad!). The volatile oils in cardamom can improve digestion and chewing on a pod or two helps with bad breath. Cardamom has also been shown to stop ulcers and prevent colon cancer among other things. My aunts in India would often travel to the markets with little bags of cardamom pods tucked into their purses to chew on after a meal as a natural breath mint. Give it a try.
Gajar ka Halwa or Gajrela, Carrot Halwa
Pressure Cooker Size: 3 quart or larger
Warm Up: 6 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes + 27 minutes Sauté
Cool Down: 4 minutes natural release + manual release time
TOTAL: 45 minutes + manual release time
Makes: 2 cups
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons raw, unsalted cashews
4 cups hand-grated carrots (4 large, 10-inches-long)
½ cup milk (whole, low-fat, skim or dairy alternative)
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup dried milk (whole, low-fat, skim or dairy alternative)
½ teaspoon ground green cardamom seeds or powder
1. Place the inner cooking pot in your Instant Pot. Select the SAUTE setting and adjust to MORE. When the indicator flashes HOT, add 1 tablespoon of ghee.
2. When the ghee has melted, add the cashews. Stir and cook for 30 seconds. Carefully remove the inner pot and take the cashews out with a slotted spoon, leaving the ghee behind. I remove the inner pot, so it does not get too hot ahead of the next step.
3. Return the pot to the base, add the carrots, and SAUTE for 6 minutes. Stir often so that the carrots do not stick. While it’s more work, hand-grated carrots are essential for the correct consistency. A food processor or pre-grated carrots can be used, but the carrots will not be thin enough.
4. Press CANCEL. Add the milk and stir. Lock the lid into place. Make sure the pressure release valve is set to the sealing position (upwards). Press the PRESSURE COOK button and then press the PRESSURE LEVEL button until the panel reads HIGH. Adjust the cook time to 8 minutes.
5. Once the cooking is complete, release the pressure naturally for 4 minutes and then release the remaining pressure manually. Press CANCEL and open the lid.
6. Press the SAUTE button and adjust to MORE. Add the sugar and stir. From the point the dish starts to simmer, cook uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring often to make sure the carrots don’t stick or burn. If the pot gets too hot, turn the setting to NORMAL. This uncovered cook time is critical to evaporate the extra moisture.
7. Add the dried milk. Cook for 3 minutes and stir regularly to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom or burns. The halwa will start to pull away from the sides of the pot. If it starts to stick to the bottom, add 1-2 teaspoons of milk and stir.
8. Add 1 tablespoon of ghee and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring often.
9. Press CANCEL. Carefully move the inner pot to a heat-resistant surface, add the cashews from Step 2 and the cardamom, and stir. Cool for 5 minutes. Either serve warm alone or with vanilla ice cream or chill in the fridge first.
This recipe can easily be made plant-based by subbing plant-based butter for ghee and using soy, almond, oat, or cashew milk for the dairy milk. I will be experimenting with coconut milk as well in the coming weeks. There are many dried non-dairy milk options available as well. For the slow cooker version, head to my cookbook, 'The Indian Slow Cooker' and turn to page 160.
Want to watch me make it? Here's the video from my YouTube Channel. Head over there and Subscribe for my videos AND read the description to this video, where I break it down into segments for easier viewing.
Natural vs. Manual Release: Watch me release the steam from my Instant Pot. In the recipe above, I recommend a natural release of 4 minutes. This means that you will not touch your Instant Pot once it finishes cooking and let the steam release by itself - with no help from you - for 4 minutes. This allows the steam in the pot to finish off the dish. Now, we could do this for more than 4 minutes until all of the steam releases and the valve drops to indicate it's safe to open the lid. But, the issue is that the extra time further cooks the dish. Some dishes are okay and even better with this extra cook time - but some become mushy. The dish above may overcook, so that's why we want to manually release the remaining pressure. This is what I show you how to do in the video below. Very critical - do NOT put your hand over the steam release button. Steam is extremely hot. Just use your fingertips or the handle of a spatula to move the valve into pressure release mode. I would also recommend keeping your pressure cooker/Instant Pot away from cabinets - I never like the released steam touching cabinets or dishes. If you are worried about the steam discoloring anything around your appliance, just place a dishcloth that you don't mind staining loosely over it as you release the steam. This can be more of an issue when cooking a thin dal or making something with turmeric and other spices in it.
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