Of all the halwa varieties in India, if there is one version that embodies the spirit of festivity in taste, it is Moong Dal Halwa – a favourite of royals and commoners alike.
Circa 1614: Emperor Jahangir issues a new decree for Diwali festival. This year aside the regular fanfare of fireworks, good food, entertainment, lights, and gifts, he wants a thali with as many sweet versions as the empire estates. And none would be a repeat. The emperor who had grown watching the Hindu festival transform into a court tradition under the able aegis of his father, the illustrious Akbar, is rather fond of the festival, which he called Jashn-e-Chiraghan for two reasons: one the lights and two, he had met his nur-e-nazar Nur Jahan, now his Empress, at one of the Meena Bazar during the time.
As the Emperor and Empress spent the days in anticipation of a grand celebrations which English diplomat Thomas Roe would refer to as “magnificence personified” to his fellowmen, downstairs the decree has sent a wave of hurriedness in the department of Amir-i-Majlis (Officer In-charge of Royal Feast and Festival) and that of Mir Bakwal (Head of Royal Kitchen). A team of fastest messengers is set to send message to different parts of the empire and the many alliances to send their best sweetmeat maker to Agra Fort.
Far off, the Mansabdar of Oudh sets his army of warq makers for Agra while Amber dispatches a group of royal halwais adept at making sweet and savouries treat. The rest of the mansabdaris get busy in finding the best hand and treats to be presented to the Emperor. Meanwhile, at Agra Fort, a makeshift space is readied to hold the big supply of dry fruits from Iran and Persia and spices from the South. Inside the royal kitchen, the sweetmeat makers are busy concocting new treats that would befit the grand occasion.
As Diwali nears, Mir Bakwal presents the new dishes that the kitchen had doled out including those that have come across the empire and the allied royals. Story has it that the sweet platter which was presented to the emperor had among other sweets over two dozen version of the Turkish halva – a fudge-like treat that had arrived with the Mughals in India but had changed into a dry sheera-like sweet made with ghee, jaggery and garnished with slivers of almonds, pistachios. Served belly warm, it had become an instant winter speciality not only among the Mughals but to the different regions and royal houses it travelled to. But it was one halwa version that stood out not only for its bright yellow colour, richness but also the taste: it was Moong Dal Halwa.
A speciality of house of Amber, one of the initial Rajputana kingdom to form both political and martial alliance with the Mughals – their princess Harka Bai/Heer Kumar (often referred to as Jodha Bai) was one of the chief queen consort of Emperor Akbar- the moong dal halwa was designed to be part of the winter food – and was reserved for special occasions like weddings, special guests and festivities. But that was till the halwa was made a part of Jahangir’s Chappan Bhog Thal for Diwali.
Taste aside what made Moong Dal Halwa such a popular treat then was the royal love for Moong Dal, the only lentil which as per Charak Samhita is both Kashaya (astringent) and Madhura (sweet) in rasa, and causes the least of bloating among all the dal varieties we have. This perhaps explains why not just ChandraGupt Maurya whose diet had Moong Dal both in his meal and as a sweet porridge during winters, but later kings including Prithviraj Chauhan and then Akbar and Aurangzeb too turned towards Moong for their meals while in court. Such was the charm of this easy to digest sweet dal and its “grahi” – the ability to fire up agni (digestion) - that it became one of few lentils that were preferred to make sweets aside of omnipresent channa dal. Of course, the other ace, says seasoned Chef Nimish Bhatia, “is Moong Dal’s cooling property, which makes it an ideal pairing with rice for khichdi and with milk for kheer – the two dishes, which as per our wellness tradition were designed to balance the circadian rhythm of the body and keep our mind calm especially during weather change.” And given that moong dal had already become a popular antidote to cure or prevent a variety of health conditions caused by seasonal changes or otherwise, turning it into a halwa as an obvious choice.
What was fascinating however, says Chef Bhatia, “was the making, Unlike in kheer and khichdi or chila where moong dal goes lighter in texture, with halwa it took on a dense garb with a rich, very rich taste. In fact, it could take in a good amount of ghee turning the subtle dal into a gourmet treat, especially during winters where it worked both as an energy booster and a reviver of the palate that was constantly craving for food that were high on that velvety taste.”
And while that gave Moong Dal Halwa the golden ticket to the royal tables, especially during winters, making a good moong dal halwa was nothing less than a skill that needed to be mastered. The lentil has a reputation of cooking fast and would change colour if it was slightly overcooked, the ghee was not enough, or the sugar was a smidgen more. This temperamental nature of the dal while challenged the cooks – only the best hand attempted to make one – and their skills, it also elevated the halwa as limited edition, or to be made for special occasion. It is said that the tradition of “limited servings” even to an emperor or a nawab was started with a moong dal halwa. The dish often made with a day or two notice came with a caveat: “eat what is served.”
The richness, says culinary revivalist Chef Pradeep Tejwani, “was but one of the reasons that the servings were controlled, the other was the nutrient composition. At 212 kcal, a bowl of moong dal is not only calorie dense but comes with a rich source of potassium, carbohydrate, protein, calcium, magnesium, and fat, which gets fortified using ghee and nuts. This while on one hand makes it a great energy booster – one that is defined by the instant feeling of zen that sets in within the first few spoons – the fact that it has low glycemic index makes it an indulgence where less is more, even in winters for which the halwa was specially designed for.”
It is a fact that is corroborated by the likes of Shveta Bhasin who rates Moong Dal Halwa as one of the finest “functional food for winters, immensely effective when had in moderation”. But it is a practice better said than done, or at least that what happened as Moong Dal Halwa went from being the highlight in Jahangir’s Thali to a pan-India obsession. So much so that the Deccan Kings too devised their own version called the Thiruvaiyaru Halwa or Asoka Halwa. Developed in the royal corridor of Tanjavur (Tamil Nadu), this version of Moong Dal Halwa not only is denser but also introduced the culture of garnishing it with cashew nuts instead of the almonds in the north – and has a distinct orange colour. Many believe it was this varietal that started the culture of using colour in halwa. Much like how Oudh (Awadh) introduced the use of crystal sugar and attar aroma.