Have you ever heard of Tirunelveli Halwa? I first tasted this incredible stuff when we lived in Himachal Pradesh and an officer from Appa's battalion went home to Tirunelveli on leave, and brought us some back. It was sublime. The halwa was dark brown with a golden sheen, and it contained strategically placed cashew nuts. But the best bits in my book were the crusty bits of sugar that I would seek out with my spoon, again and again. Those bits were of sugar, recrystallized around ghee, crusty and yet melting with a flavour that could bring a dead man back to life. This is however, not the story of that halwa (Okay, I promise to stop doing this now.)
The internet abounds with recipes for Tirunelveli Halwa, but I know better than to attempt them. The story goes that the halwa gains its particular flavour from the water of the Thamarabarani river. Perhaps that is true, perhaps it's only folklore. I know that no matter how well I follow the recipe, I'll never be able to replicate quite that taste.
The last time my grandmother (Patti) stayed with us though, she made a halwa, that reminded me a great deal of the Tirunelveli stuff. It had almost the same texture and the same crusty ends of sugar. I scraped the kadai clean that time and then, my craving satisfied, forgot about it. But today, after a particularly cold morning and after getting soaked while washing the dog, I thought of that halwa again. Cue a long distance phone call with Patti. I discovered to my amazement, that this halwa only contains three ingredients. Three. Four, if you count water. It came out just like I remembered. I spooned it up straight out of the kadai and burned my tongue, but it didn't matter. This stuff, is good.
2 tbsp Maida (All purpose flour)
8 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp ghee
In a small bowl, combine maida and enough water to form an even slurry. It should be about the thickness of paint. Then in a kadai, heat the sugar on high, with an additional two tablespoons of water. a 1:4 ratio of flour and sugar might seem excessive, but trust me, it's necessary. In my first attempt, with a vague idea of making it more healthy, I cut the sugar by two tablespoonfuls and then spent a later five minutes cussing and stirring powdered sugar into my rapidly cooling halwa. Allow the sugar to caramelise lightly. Just when the whole syrup turns a bubbling amber, lower the heat and add in the ghee. Once the ghee has melted completely, pour in the flour and water mix in a thin stream, stirring continuously. It will cook almost as soon as it touches the sugar below. The whole mix will turn rather wobbly and gelatinous and clump together. Stir for a minute longer, till the ghee separates, then turn off the heat. You can now drain off the excess ghee.
I served this with chopped pistachios, more for aesthetics's sake than anything else. The halwa doesn't need them. Nor does it need a shower of cardamom, the ghee does just fine at making it smell swoon-worthy, thank you very much. If you can resist, let it stand at room temperature for about a day, and those glorious sugar crystals will form. When they do, warm the halwa up lightly and serve right away.