In Karachi, Pakistan, where I grew up, a clear, starlit sky and balmy breeze were reasons enough to race up to the rooftop—but on the night of the 29th fast of Ramadan, the only reason was to catch the first glimpse of the new moon, followed by that deafening siren from the mosque: Eid, just a sunrise away. As a child, the anticipation of collecting colorful packets of eidee (gifted money) and the eating mithai (sweetmeats) dulled out much else. But as I grew up, my interests (and nose) were diverted towards the kitchen, with its scents of saffron and other aromatic spices.
In my house, the eve of Eid meant gajar ka halva, that ubiquitous South Asian dessert. I watched as my mother grated a kilo of deep red, sweet, intensely crunchy Pakistan carrots and throw them into a steel cauldron with cloves, cardamom, and shocking amounts of buffalo milk cream. Many families have their own secret generational recipes for gajar ka halva; my mother’s combines recipes passed down by both my grandmothers. The aromas of Eid made sleeping next to impossible.
After a month of abstinence and somber evenings, Eid brings with it a new hope, a time for celebration, featuring the best we can lay on our tables—because feeding others goes to the very heart of the holiday. Families gather, embrace and share abundant platters, as food plays center stage; no expense is spared.
In Pakistan, a day of feasting begins with an indulgent breakfast of sheer khurma (sweet vermicelli, saffron, and date milk) or qawwami seviyan (sugar concentrated vermicelli with cream). Preparation for the Eid daawat (joyous feast) begins days before the event, resulting in an extravagant array of dishes, including some favorites, such as beef shank nihari, goat biryani infused with kewra water, paya (goats trotter stew), homemade naans, lentils and spiced vegetables—but for me, sweets always take center stage. I remember how, after all the plates were removed, my mother would unveil her laboriously prepared carrot halva. Adorned with gold or silver leaf and crowned with fresh slivered pistachios, it exuded a haunting aroma of cardamom and sometimes saffron. Whether eaten hot or cold, this grand finale was worth every minute of my mother’s hard work. Eid was now complete.
To most Pakistanis, seviyan (sweet vermicelli with pistachios, cardamom and saffron) is synonymous with Eid, but gajar ka halva takes me home, and it is re-creatable in most places. Today, I’m recreating it in Scotland, using local produce, and don’t need many unusual ingredients. Scottish carrots change the flavor, but gajar ka halva nonetheless tastes like Karachi—maybe because the spirit of the recipe never changes, nor the love with which it is cooked. To me, gajar ka halva evokes a deep sense of heritage. I find it is the ultimate Pakistani celebratory dessert, no matter where I am in the world.
Carrot Halva with Cloves, Cardamom, and Fudge
- 3 cups peeled and grated carrots
- 1 1/2 cups double cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 caster sugar
- 5 cardamom pods, seeds taken out and crushed
- 5 cloves
- 2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
- 1 tablespoon roughly ground pistachios
- Red food coloring (optional)
- 1 tablespoon desiccated coconut
- 1 tablespoon crushed pistachios and almonds, for each serving
- gold or silver leaf (optional)
- 4 cups whole milk, for khoya (wholemilk fudge)
Any foods that transport you to your childhood? Let us know in the comments!