Gajar ka Halwa must’ve been invented by a cook with a touch of genius. This simple but spectacular Indian dessert classic made with shredded carrots harnesses the natural flavor and sweetness of carrots into a dish so delicious, you’ll be making it over and over.
As much as I love most vegan Indian sweets, I am particularly partial to Gajar ka Halwa, a thick and dry carrot pudding studded with nuts.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that it’s made mostly with carrots, which means it is almost a healthy sweet — an oxymoron if there ever was one. And yes, there’s sugar here, but not as much sugar as you might think you’d need because the carrots, as they cook down, concentrate their own natural sugars.
What’s more, if you really are on a health kick, you can make this recipe with dates, and cut out any added sugar altogether.
I had shared my Gajar ka Halwa with you all the way back in 2008 and it was quite perfect, but with Diwali knocking at the door, I wanted to refresh it for you because I’ve made some changes to make it even better over the years. For one, this is now a one-pot dish and it’s still super easy to make, yet rich and delicious enough to enjoy on a special occasion. (You can also try my vegan carrot pudding, an equally delicious and naturally sweetened recipe that can double up both as breakfast and dessert)
I am not a big one for religious festivities of any kind, and most Indian festivals pass unnoticed by me, especially since I live far from India. But here’s something I do love about India’s religious holidays: I love that most Indians eat vegetarian on these days, because there’s a tacit understanding that god would not want you eating his creatures on those special days.
But an exception, as it usually is with Indian vegetarian food, is milk and milk-based products, like ghee, which get used abundantly during holidays and festivities, and are a big part of Indian sweets eaten for Diwali or other occasions.
Gajar ka Halwa, too, is made with milk and khoya, a milk reduction. But for my vegan version I use cashew milk, which I make myself because I want the halwa to have a certain consistency and none of the preservatives.
The cashew milk is a great substitute for the milk and khoya, because it adds richness and sweetness and flavor. And there are many good reasons to shun milk, a product that comes from immense cruelty to cows.
In India, factory farming and its related abuses have taken firm hold, and as the country’s thirst for milk grows, the animals who suffer most to quench it are dairy cows and buffaloes.
Cows and buffaloes used for milk live incredibly short lives — just six to eight years. They are kept in a constant state of pregnancy to provide milk, and pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Calves are separated from their mothers early on — sometimes right after birth — so the milk he or she should be drinking can instead be used to feed humans. The male calves are slaughtered for their meat.
Ironically, India holds the title of the world’s largest beef exporter, with the meat exported coming ostensibly from buffaloes (because cows are considered sacred!). Cows too old to produce milk are often turned out onto the streets and either starve or forage for food in garbage dumps, ending up with record numbers of plastic bags in their stomachs. There are said to be an estimated 60,000 homeless cows living on the streets of New Delhi, India’s capital city, alone.
However you look at it, milk and milk products are bad news, and there’s nothing sacred or holy about abusing an innocent animal and then leaving her to fend for herself on the streets where she will die anyway of eating plastic because there’s no food available to fill her belly.
Veganism is slowly taking hold in India, and festivities are a great time to start a new tradition. Whether you are Indian or not, and whether you celebrate Diwali or not, I hope you will try this vegan Gajar ka Halwa. You won’t miss the dairy, I promise. And your holiday will be a sweeter one for knowing you didn’t contribute to the cruelty of milk.
Tips for making the perfect Gajar ka Halwa:
- Grate your carrots coarsely, not very fine. This is because the carrot will cook quite a bit and absorb the nondairy milk and if it’s too finely shredded, it will reduce to a mash.
- Try and make your cashew milk yourself, because you really don’t want those added preservatives taking away from the flavor of your halwa. There are just five ingredients here, and keeping each flavor clean will give you the best results. You will need to blend a cup of raw cashews with three cups of water.
- When you mix the milk and the carrots, it will look like you have a disproportionately large amount of milk, but don’t worry. As you cook the halwa, the carrots will absorb the milk and some of the liquid will evaporate.
- You have some leeway in how long you cook your halwa. I like to make it really dry (as in it’s still moist and succulent, but there isn’t any visible liquid). But I’ve eaten versions of carrot halwa that are more pudding-y and they taste quite good. I like cooking it a bit longer because I find that removes the grassy flavor of the carrot and leaves just its deliciousness behind.
- You can use sugar to sweeten your halwa, like I did, or you can sweeten it naturally with dates. Soak your dates in hot water for at least 30 minutes and blend them as smoothly as possible. I would use half a cup of the cashew milk to blend them and then add them at the same time as the carrots and milk (instead of a little later, as with the sugar).
Now that you’re armed with all of my gajar ka halwa wisdom, let’s move on and get cooking. And to all readers of Holy Cow!, a very happy Diwali.
Ingredients for Gajar ka Halwa:
- Carrots. Richer colored carrots will give you better color. You can use color, although your garden variety orange carrots are most commonly used in India.
- Sugar. I use turbinado sugar or coconut sugar because they add a richer color as well. Again, any sugar is fine.
- Green cardamom powder
- Raw cashews
- Sliced almonds
Looking for more vegan Indian sweets?
Gajar ka Halwa recipe
Vegan | Dairy-free | Gluten-Free | Soy-Free
Gajar ka Halwa
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (divided)
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds (other nuts like cashews and pistachios would work too)
- 4 packed cups carrots (about 1 1/2 pounds, grated coarsely. Use the grater with the largest holes.)
- 1 cups raw cashews
- 1 tsp cardamom powder (always use green cardamom for sweets)
- 1 cup sugar (alternatively use 1 cup of dates soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then blended with part of the cashew milk you'll make for this recipe.)
- Blend the cashews with 3 cups water into a very smooth milk/cream. If your blender isn't very powerful, soak the cashews in water for at least an hour first.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large pan, preferably nonstick. A wider pan will allow the liquid to thicken and evaporate more easily. Add the sliced almonds or any other nuts you are using. Saute them for a couple of minutes until they just begin to change color. Add the carrots and cardamom, saute a couple of minutes, then add the cashew milk. * (If using dates to sweeten, see notes below before adding all the milk).
- Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until most of the milk has been absorbed into the cashews. This will take at least 15-20 minutes. If it's going too slow, increase the heat a bit but keep an eye on the carrots and stir them often because you don't want them to stick to the bottom.
- Add the sugar and the remaining 1 tbsp oil and stir until it's well mixed and the sugar has dissolved.
- At this stage, you can pretty much decide how much longer you want your halwa to cook — taking it off the heat at this point will give you a more pudding-like texture, but you can continue to cook longer until the halwa pulls off the bottom and sides of the pan and there's absolutely no visible liquid. I like to cook the halwa to this stage, but it means some exercise for your arm, so be warned.
- Once the halwa reaches the desired state of doneness, take if off the heat. You can eat the halwa warm or at room temperature or cold, it's delicious every way. Garnish with sliced almonds before serving, if you wish.
- If cooking with dates, soak the dates for 30 minutes in hot water, then blend into a very smooth paste with 1/2 cup of the cashew milk you’ll be using. Add the date-cashew milk mixture to the pan at the same time as you add the rest of the cashew milk and continue cooking. Skip over the step in the recipe where you add sugar.