Deconstructing Gajar Halwa

  • Gajar halwa- A pudding of grated carrots, milk, ghee and nuts
  • Idli- A savory, steamed cake made from fermented rice batter.
  • Chutney- (for our purposes) A side dish made of fresh coconut and spices; something like a dip for an idli.
  • Chutney pudi- A powder made of roasted lentils and spices. This too is an accompaniment to the idli.
  • Deconstruction- Cooking the ingredients of a dish separately, and bringing them together only on the plate

I like the concept of deconstruction, especially of Indian food1. As the focus of our food is usually the spices and the balance, the natural flavor of the ingredients is sometimes deemed unimportant2- you can't do that with a deconstruction. I thought a deconstructed gajar halwa would be nice in the winter. Then things got a bit weird. Stay with me.

Advaita

Computer systems isn't a field you would normally associate creativity with, but it actually requires its own brand of disciplined creativity. That's probably my greatest learning in grad school as of now. I thought technical creativity and artsy creativity were different things, but they really aren't. People are creative about different things, but I think that's from the application of the same creative process to different subjects, and not from having different sets of inherent abilities. In short, I believe Bill Gates could have been Steve Jobs in another life, and vice versa.

Indians have a name for this philosophy of non-duality: advaita. The actual philosophy has acquired religious overtones, and I daresay, become bastardized, but I think this is what it really means. While pondering all this, gajar halwa was hanging about at the back of my mind.

I have inherited my mother's intuition with flavors. So much so that I think like her when I'm cooking- I have an urge to make extra so that nobody goes even a little hungry (otherwise I think, if it's too little there's always Soylent), and cater to others' tastes- strange, foreign tendencies in my normal mind. While thinking about advaita I figured, despite my intuition being inherited, it's a part of me; this is my ability. I could be creative with it. I could think about it like I think about other things. I could improve it!

Finally, I was also thinking about racism, and how it's very subtle. In USA, I'm brown. It doesn't sound like a big deal, and it isn't. However, it does feel weird to be at the receiving end of it (just being something; brown, in this case.)3. It's like calling women, 'pussy' (but far less offensive, of course). Having a vagina does not make you 'pussy' and having brown skin shouldn't make you 'brown'. If you call me brown for no logical reason4, I'll assume you're associating me with call centers and curry spices that leak out of my body as sweat5.

The interesting thing about being brown is that it subsumes our other divisions- North and South, states, languages, all of it. We're brown and united. It was strange that in India we saw our differences so starkly, although they pale in comparison to our similarities (especially the North-South divide). I doubt I'm racist, but among the non-haters racism is not explicit, merely convenient. I realized I need to be actively non-racist to truly not be racist. I guess one day I was thinking about all of these at the same time. For some reason, I made the leap of making gajar halwa so it looks like an idli, as a showcase of non-duality, the necessity of looking past surfaces, and whimsy.

The Process

From this point it was just a matter of asking questions.

Q. Dip the halwa in tempura batter and fry it?
A. That will be weird and oily.

Q. Coat it with powdered meringue?
A. That sounds better. But meringues apparently get a sulfuric taste sometimes.

Q. What about macarons?
A. Macarons make a lot of sense. They have almonds in them too! There's no need to powder them even, just stuff the halwa in the macarons. (I ended up powdering the macarons because stuffing was too hard6).

Q. What about raisins?
A. Now I think of it, I never liked those bloated raisins in halwa. But raisins are the sour element in halwa. Why not use white wine?

Q. A wine sauce?
A. Yeah, that could be chutney. I could add pistachios in it so it looks green.

Q. Won't that be too runny?
A. I could make a jelly instead of a sauce.

Q. Where will the saffron be?
A. I could make a saffron caramel. That would look like chutney pudi.

Q. What about cashews?
A. Fuck cashews.

This took two months of thinking about gajar halwa while on the bus ride to college, but I'm sure for someone more accomplished, it's a ten-minute process. Nevertheless, it feels incredible that I went from advaita to carrot halwa, white wine and pistachio jelly, cardamom macarons and saffron caramel7.

It did not look as pretty as I wanted, because I had only about an hour to leave for college that day, and no molds. It tasted pretty good8.


  1. The modular nature of deconstructions also appeals to me. Modularity is always good.
  2. This is probably why the 'red gravy', or 'curry' has become synonymous with Indian food- a degraded amalgamation of all the gravies we have, subtleties be damned. Is there a single authentic recipe that really calls for breaking out the 'red gravy'?
  3. I've been kidnapped and you have to describe me as brown.
  4. I must stress that I've never experienced racism in Pittsburgh.
  5. Indians may actually smell of curry here. I know I sometimes smell of curry. That's not because I don't bathe, or don't use deodorant, but because the kitchens here don't have a bloody exhaust! God forbid you heat up a little oil- your apartment will reek of it forever. Now we're forced to point a fan to an open window and cook in the cold. For this same reason, a lot of poorly ventilated buildings here smell of fried chicken.
  6. This was the first time I tasted a macaron. I can see why they're divine. Mine weren't, but they were close.
  7. Earlier, when I saw dishes with weird names and chefs talking about what a dish represents, I would think they're full of shit.
  8. Condensed milk does not work. Use khoya. Also, make your own ghee.