A Classical analysis of Kasi Halwa - Sai Kiran, Storyteller

A Classical analysis of Kasi Halwa - Sai Kiran, Storyteller

“Parthasarathyswamisabha” (Alex's standup video playing), the sound of audience laughter blared from the television screen. My cousin paused the video and suggested in an assertive tone, “Let’s check if he’s doing a live show today”. While I thought about it, it being the prospect of us going to his show, he checked on bookmyshow and commented, “nope, not this weekend”. I started to wonder, “Margazhi masam le (auspicious month of Margashirsha), how about a carnatic night?”. The idea was well received, he said, “Actually not a bad idea. If Sid Sriram or Bombay Jayasri is doing a show tonight, we’re going.”  15 minutes later we were on our way to the sabha in my activa. “Pramaadham (just what we need), the entire street is jam-packed” I started to grumble. “Well, that’s marghazi masam in Madras for you”, he responded. “Are you actually hopeful that we’ll get tickets to his concert?” I asked in a bemused tone. “Of course, no”, he said, almost as a reflex, with a deadpan face. “Then, why are we parking?” I shot back. “Let’s, at least, check this place out”, he nudged. With interest starting to slowly fade away as we inch our way through the street, he cheered, “There’s another entrance. Let’s check it out.” We pushed past the gate and stepped into a lounge-like area with plastic chairs and tables arranged as you’d expect to see in a restaurant. “This is a sweet deal. Free music and food. People inside are not allowed to eat right?”, I chortled. One of the caterers stepped forward and gushed, “Food’s ready sir. We’re serving ‘vazhaipoo vadai’ (banana blossom fritters), ‘urulaikizhangu bonda’ (deep-fried potato dumpling), and ‘kasi halwa’ (white pumpkin halwa) today”. My cousin’s face suddenly lit up and he exclaimed, “Change of plans. We’re going to do a bit of food exploration today”. I jokingly responded, “Sabha hopping’? Why not?” I, personally, got excited at ‘kasi halwa’. It’s one dish that you don’t get to see outside of a traditional South Indian wedding breakfast. I wonder why that is.

This ghee-dripping, nostalgia-oozing, yellow colored goodness is a delicacy to relish. One of the foremost things that intrigued me about this dish was its name. Till date, no one knows for certain why it is called ‘kasi halwa’. I’ve come across 3 theories so far. First theory is actually my friend’s response to the said question. He said, “Since it tastes heavenly, it’s named after the heavenly city of Kashi”, which made me question our friendship. Second theory is that according to tambrahm wedding tradition, the groom pretends to leave for Kashi city to become a scholar and the bride’s father stops him and enlightens him about the second stage of life, which is supposedly the path to salvation. This ritual is called ‘Kashi Yatra’. As part of this ritual, the groom is fed with white pumpkin halwa and the name stems from this ritual. The third and final theory is that the name is derived from the Hindi word for white pumpkin, ‘kashi-phal’. Whichever theory suits your personality, you can stick to it. ‘Kasi halwa’ is a dish that screams inclusivity. There should be no one left behind.

While re-engineering the recipe of this dish, I noticed that there could be countless varieties of ‘kasi halwa’. Starting with its color, depending on whether or not you add food color, it could be golden yellow or yellowish red. While the recipe typically calls for ghee as a base, I’ve come across a variant made with coconut oil. This is precisely why this dessert is beginner friendly to cook. The room for improvisation is abundant here. As another example, while the recipe doesn’t call for milk, it could be added to cook the pumpkin. It gives the dish a pudding-like texture. Edible camphor (pachai karpooram) is another ingredient which could be used as a tool of improvisation. The aroma of camphor is quite nostalgic to me. It takes me back to my early days when temple visit was part of my everyday agenda. As camphor smell is more prominent in temples, personally, the smell of it in desserts like ‘kasi halwa’ or ‘sakkarai pongal’ is like hitting a rewind button. 

We licked the banyan leaf clean leaving behind an imprint of the dish in ghee, which is also a true measure of how good an halwa is. My cousin went, “Shall we leave?”

“Marandhutiya (You forgot)? We haven’t had coffee yet”

“Not now. We have an objective.”

By the time Sid Sriram started another song, we were on our way to Vani Mahal.

- Sai Kiran, Storyteller - Sweet Karam Coffee




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