Halwa is to India what chocolates are to Switzerland. Anne Zwahlen, a Swiss national, explores the halwa tradition in southern Tamil Nadu, and comes away smacking her lips at the delicious gooey amber colored sweet that just melts and dissolves away on her tongue in pure pleasure!
When I began researching halwa, I immediately thought of the sweet and crumbly treat from Eastern Europe that is easily found in my home country of Switzerland. Yet, I soon learned that halwa is also made in Africa, the Middle East and across Asia. Looking at the etymology of the word has been useful to determine its origins. Though it has been borrowed by many languages, the root word ‘halwa’ is Arabic and means sweet.
Two main types can be differentiated: the flour-based halwa, made from semolina which has a gelatinous texture; and the nut-butter based halwa, made from tahini - a sesame seed paste. Indian halwa belongs to the first type. Even though halwa does not originate from India, it is much loved all over the country, and has become very popular with Madurai residents.
We first scout ‘Prema Vilas Tirunelveli Lala Sweet Shop’ a crowded shop in Madurai. In this little corner, around fifteen employees of all ages are packing, weighing and serving the long queue of customers. The shop’s busy owner, Manohar Singh, 46, welcomes us at the counter while trying to keep his employees working.
Manohar’s taste for selling halwa isn’t surprising. He is a native of Uttar Pradesh, where halwa is the traditional business. So far, ten people in his family have been involved in the trade. He proudly explains that his shop opened in 1952. Today, it serves an impressive 3,000 customers a day. Children and the elderly constitute the biggest portion and 80 percent of them are regular customers.
Manohar explains about the four types of halwa he sells: milk, wheat, carrot and cashew. However, he specifies that the wheat halwa is the Indian people’s favourite. The main ingredients are wheat, water and sugar. In terms of quality ingredients, he uses only pure ghee which is, according to him, the main reason people come to his shop in particular. I assume that his 25 years of experience must also play a role in the success of his business.
After the interview, he offers us a piece of halwa. It is surprisingly hot and served on a banana leaf. Eating the gelatinous treat with my fingers was quite an experience as well as its incredibly sweet taste.
The Halwa Town
Writing an article about halwa without going to Tirunelveli was unthinkable. The owner of Shanti Sweets. Mr. Siva Subramanian, 52, welcomes us into a comfortable office located just opposite his crowded shop. “All these buildings belong to the company,” he explains.
Siva Subramanian opened his shop in 1976, inspired by his father. It proved to be a good idea: everyday, about 5000 customers buy halwa from his shop. Customers of all ages eat halwa here, and for all sorts of occasions and festivals. “Sabarimala season is a big plus point for us,” he says. Indeed, if people avoid savories because they contain garlic when they go to worship the gods, they will still buy halwa.
Siva never expected that his shop would be such a huge success. In 1976, Tirunelveli halwa wasn’t as well-known yet. As proof of his success, the owner of another shop in Tirunelveli, which was established in 1880, relocated to be opposite Siva’s shop. This doesn’t seem to bother Siva. “We consider that as our revolution and success,” he says.
Siva doesn’t actually know how to prepare the treat himself, but this doesn’t seem to prevent him from selling lots of halwa. “I know if a halwa is good or not just by seeing it,” he says. He provides his employees with demonstration classes to learn how to make it. Preparing halwa is very difficult, depending on the quality of the wheat and even on the season.
“Looking at the crowd in the shop, people may think that it is a very easy business, but it is actually not so. There is a lot of work involved,” confirms Siva.
It seems Siva Subramanian’s success is due to his hard work and his dedicated team of employees. His shop shows perfect organisation with each worker having his own task. He believes it’s better for one person to have only one job. The shop is also open 24 hours, and also sells savories and other sweets.
Though his father inspired him with the idea to start his business, Siva realises that the shop may disappear after he stops working. “This business will be here only while I am here. After that, I can’t expect my children to do it,” he admits.
Melt in your mouth
The two crowded shops before us reveal a lot about Indians’ enthusiasm for Halwa. N. Pitchumani, 23, Premkumar N., 23, A. Velammal, 52, N. Gomathi, 48, from Kovilpatti, have been eating halwa since they were children and come especially to Tirunelveli to buy it. As Siva Subramanian had explained to us, 90 percent of his customers are tourists. Shanti Shop is their favourite and they always come here to buy around one kilogram of halwa each for their families.
Everyone who works for Shanti Sweets is actively involved in its preparation and for most of them it is more a passion than a job. At the Shanti Sweets factory, we meet E. Sandhana Mariappan, 41, who has been working here for 22 years, who enjoys working in supplies.
Factory Manager G. Namachivayam, 63, who started working with Shanti sweets 36 years ago enjoys overseeing operations. He is proud of the good atmosphere in the factory. “Our relationship is like father, brother, mother and sister,” he says.
It is amazing how a simple sweet can be such a big success. This delicious gooey amber coloured treat seems to be an important part of the Indian diet and a much loved aspect of Indian culture.