January 19, 2010
This is kind of a strange food. And I feel a little strange blogging about it because I’m not sure any of you will ever end up making it.
Actually, that’s not true; I know at least one of you will. When I wrote about our big ole Diwali party in October, I mentioned that suji halwa was the featured dessert, fellow blogger Cheryl requested a recipe. I tucked her request away in my messy mental filing cabinet and am just now getting around to fulfilling it.
Suji halwa isn’t just a slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating; it’s a sacred, slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating. Basically a sweetened cream-of-wheat, suji halwa is flavored with cardamom, often studded with nuts.
It’s traditional in North Indian, where my people are from, to use suji halwa as prashad, an edible offering brought to temple or puja, blessed in God’s presence and redistributed to those present as nourishment, in both the literal and figurative sense. As a kid, I looked forward to Tuesday mornings because my mother would rise extra early to make a batch of suji halwa, then bless it through her morning prayers and feed it to me for breakfast.
I don’t think it’s any accident that most all of the world’s religions have traditions and rituals related to food—communion, fellowship, transubstantiation—it’s all an effort to connect to the ineffable through one of our most basic and necessary acts, eating. We consume, we are consumed, we become one, we are molecularly joined.
This week has brought with it little moments of joy and extended scenes of the most terrifying loss and sadness. To keep a constant, even if it’s something as humble as a porridge, builds constancy and assurance that this spinning world is still an okay place to be, in spite of the despair that comes with it.
If you have ever visited a Hindu or Sikh temple, it’s likely you’ve tasted this stuff yourself. Everyone’s version is a little bit different—what I like about my mom’s (outside of perfectly fusing with hundreds of Tuesday morning memories, of course) is that it isn’t at all greasy and goes great with a cup of tea. Try it as a dessert or with a piece of buttered toast for an indulgent breakfast.
This recipe is all about ratios, so you can double it easily.
For the simple syrup, sugar: water, 1:2.
For the overall dish, suji: sugar = 1 :1 + 2 T.
1 cup water
1 cup plus 2 T sugar
1 cup fine suji (semolina)*
½ cup chopped nuts—almonds, pistachios, and/or cashews (optional)
5 T canola oil
2 T butter
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom
First, make the simple syrup by dissolving the sugar into the water and bringing it to a boil. Set aside.
In a high-sided, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat. If using nuts, toast them in the butter until fragrant. Add the suji and stir to coat so that you no longer see butter or oil at the bottom of the pan.
Brown the suji over medium heat, stirring regularly. This is going to take a little while, between 8-10 minutes. Patience, my child, patience. You will be rewarded with an incredibly fragrant aroma and light brown color if you persist. Don’t rush this step—the finished product won’t taste so good if you do.
Once things are toasted to your satisfaction, remove the pan from the heat and add the simple syrup. It’s going to get splattery, so have your lid ready! Return the covered pot to low heat and stir occasionally, using the lid as your shield.
Once the splattering has died down, add the cardamom, crank the heat back up to medium and cook until the syrup has evaporated and the suji has thickened. The finished product should be scoop-able but still tight enough to hold up a teaspoon.
Serve warm. Allow to cool before transferring to re-sealable containers for refrigerator (a few weeks) or freezer (a few months) storage.
*You’ll probably need to head to the Indian grocery store for this one, order online, or find packaged semolina at a specialty (natural foods or gourmet) store.