From Urs to Comfort Food: The Journey of Paratha Halwa

Nothing says warm hug better than a crisped paratha served with a dollop of ghee-laced halwa sprinkled generously with dry fruits, tutti frutti and a cherry during winters in the North, especially in erstwhile Shahjahanabad

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Comorin

“The semolina in the dough will give it the crispness and the jaggery instead of sugar will spread evenly to give it a sublime sweetness in every bite,” says Chef Dhiraj Dargan (Executive Chef, Comorin) as he prepares the dough, covers it with a muslin cloth and leaves it to prove for some time. “The ‘resting’ will allow the flavours to blend into each other and the ghee in the dough to penetrate enough to give it the crispness that we need,” he continues to fill in as he moves to the roasted pile of shakarkandi for the halwa. With an hour into the prep work, Chef Dargan rolls out the dough into a thin paratha, a little larger than the ones we see at home and gives it a Malabari paratha treatment. Once done, the sweet paratha is crushed, topped with a good portioning of the sweet potato halwa and a dollop of ice cream with in-house ginger candy.

Comorin’s version of Paratha Halwa may appear like a far cry from the deep-fried wonder you get in the streets of Nizamuddin Darga during the cold evenings of Winters, but in taste, it hits the bullseye. The paratha is crisp, the halwa sweet and nutty thanks to the crushed makhana used in it but the mark of the chefs ingenuity is the use of the ginger flavoured ice cream that not only cranks up the palate play with the interesting gingery contrast but also pares down the sweetness too making it easy to reach for the second bite rather than water.

But three years ago, when Chef Dargan decided to work on paratha-halwa as one of the dishes for Comorin, it was an uphill task. Recalls the prodigy, “every time I visited the old bylanes of Nizamuddin Darga, I was astounded at the composition of the dish. It had taken the concept of our puri-halwa and turned it into this rich, almost gourmet style experience.” It was around his third visit, this time to watch only confesses the culinary head, “the cleverness of the dough making and that of halwa began to dawn on me. The beauty of paratha-halwa isn’t in their ghee laced halwa but the dough and the frying technique that gives it that sweetness and filo-pastry like flakiness. Result, the paratha doesn’t lose its palate playability even when it turns cold.”

The brilliance of the creation is something that even Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel) agrees to. As one of the first chef to recreate this street favourite for a festival, he calls Pratha Halwa as one of the “cleverest culinary instance of layering.” Just consider it as a dish, says Chef Dewan, “while the common perception is a sweet on sweet treat. The paratha packs in not only the texture but also a melange of sweet-savouriness that pairs beautifully with the rich halwa and the fried nuts, making it a meal that is both an indulgence and wholesome.”

It is the soulfulness of the dish that often connects Paratha Halwa with the Sufi Darghas. According to one lore, the reason behind Paratha Halwa being served around Nizamuddin Darga is Hazrat Nizamuddin’s fondness for the treat. Born in the Badayun (Uttar Pradesh) – the home to the deep fried parathas of the Paratha Wali Gali in Delhi – the scholar while a teenager took a deep-seated love for the combination of halwa and paratha, which continued even after he took to the Sufiyana style of life, and established the Chisti order.

According to another story, the association of paratha halwa with Sufism began in Kashmir where sooji halwa was rolled into a bakarkhani roti and given to those visiting the dargah as part of the blessings and was also the main highlight of the festivals, including Urs. In fact, paratha halwa, which some believe is inspired from the Bakarkhani roll while others believe the Lahori Katlama as muse, is the commonplace during the month of Urs across India. It is believed that a meal of paratha-halwa can keep you satiated for the entire day, and thus willing to focus on the path of spirituality – a reason why even in Vedas puri-halwa has been extolled as the finest vrat ka khana. There is a third theory of its origin as well which takes us into the once-revered corridor of the now forgotten akhada.

Old timers say, that back in time when mallyudh and khusti were not just entertainment but an integral part of a warrior training, especially those who dealt with close-range, hand to hand combat, the calorie rich diet of halwa and parathas were a part of the diet of the pahalwans. And given that most of the traditional akhadas followed the satvik diet thanks to their allegiance to Lord Hanuman, the combination of paratha and halwa was a good choice given that it could be made it large sizes, especially the paratha and then fortified enough to include the necessary calorie and protein intake that the pahalwans needed.

Many say that paratha halwa was part of the early diet of the legendary Great Gama – the only pahalwan who remained undefeated in his career spanning two decades. Fascinatingly, the paratha halwa diet was one of the perks that a pahalwan would get as part of his award if he won the kings heart. One emperor to advocate this tradition was Humayun, who gave land and patronage to many pahalwans from Bijapur and areas around to establish akhadas in the North. Such was the love for this gourmet treat that it even travelled to Aligarh, where it became part of the 190 year old festival called Numaish, an event started by Raja

Harinarayan Singh as a horse fair for Nawabs. Even today, the paratha halwa is one of the biggest culinary draws of the festival.

Another festival that promoted paratha halwa was the Fatehpur Art festival that had famous vocalist like Mubarak Begum gracing the podium. It is said that it was well within midnight when the crowd would disburse heady with the songs of the ‘50s playback singer – a high that could be matched by the aroma and seductive sweetness of paratha halwa.

While the two festivals and dargahs may have done their bit in popularising the winter treat of paratha halwa, little is known as to how Delhi’s winter comfort food come to life. While many like Chef Dewan believe it may have been a confluence of both the Lahori Katlama as well as the Badayun style of paratha making with our very own puri halwa thrown in for good measure; there is a segment of food explorers who credit the old bylanes of Meerut as the place where the treat took shape. Meerut – a town known for the mutiny more than its food – was one of the few towns that became a caldron of sweetmakers once the Mughal capital fell in the hands of the Colonial ruler. And there is a fair chance that Meerut too could have added its own bit to popularising Paratha Halwa. After all, it is a sweet opera in the mouth.