(jump to recipe)
Think “Color Run 5K”. Now multiply by 50,000 and replace “run” with dancing, giggling and frolic. And that’s Holi in India for you! “Holi Hai!” translates to “It’s Holi!” and is the warcry of one of the funnest Indian festivals, usually around the beginning of March, to celebrate the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. Part 1 of Holi is celebrated late in the evening with huge bonfires, where people burn statues of a demon princess. The only “ritual” on the following day (Part 2) is to have fun and lots of it: friends and family visit each other and throw colors on each other, hose each other down with colored water, and other such activities.
Music, dancing and good food is involved, as with most Indian festivals.
One of the popular warm desserts served around Holi time (or winter in general) is the Moong Dal (lentil) Halwa – a sweet lentil porridge made with clarified butter, whole milk, sugar and moong lentils that have been soaked overnight. The porridge is referred to as Halwa in northern India, “Sheera” in central/western India, and “Kesari” in certain parts of south India. This version is made with lentils but there are other versions made with whole wheat flour, or semolina (sooji), dried nuts and fruits, and so on. But the basic ingredients and proportions, as well as sequence of steps, is almost the same. The recipe can be updated with seasonal ingredients (Mango Halwa in May) or traditional occasions (Banana Halwa for religious ceremonies in Maharasthra, where I’m from). They can also be ultra lux, so rich that you can have only a couple spoonfuls: for instance with apricots, or entirely with ground almonds/cashews. I’ve also seen the blasphemous Chocolate Halwa, but I will save that rant for a different post.
Back to the Moong Dal Halwa – traditionally it’s a heavy, hearty dessert, made even heavier with the use of multiple forms of dairy. I thought I would create a lighter, dairy-free version to indulge in from time to time, so here we have a Moong Dal Halwa made with coconut oil and coconut milk! Due to the flavor of the lentils and the sugar+cardamom combination it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. And we have a decadent dessert that is dairy-free and grain-free, and every bit as delicious as the original one. That’s no small victory.
We start by thoroughly rinsing and soaking the yellow lentils (moong) for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Once soaked, grind them in a high power blender and set aside.
In a non-stick(very important) pan, fry the cashews (or sliced/slivered almonds, even walnuts) in a tablespoon or so of coconut oil – this is for the garnish later on. Remove golden brown cashews from the pan using a slotted spoon, and add more coconut oil in the same pan. Cook the lentil paste, low and slow, in the coconut oil till the raw lentil taste is completely eliminated and the lentils appear toasty and golden brown, about 30 minutes.
In parallel, we simmer the coconut milk and sugar together with some smashed green cardamom pods, keeping it at the ready, about 15 minutes.
Once the lentils are ready, we whisk in the milk (strain it to discard the cardamom pods) to the cooked lentils, and cook all the way through, with cardamom powder and raisins (that will plump up in the warm liquid). You can also add other dry fruits or nuts based on your preference, but watch closely as the calories add up fast!
And there you have it!
Garnish with some fried cashews or almonds, chopped pistachio kernels, saffron strands (warmed up in a couple teaspoons of milk), or anything your heart desires! Serve piping hot.
Another popular Holi-time recipe is the “Thandai” – it’s a mildly spicy and moderately spiced, sweet, chilled, rich milk beverage that bombs all the senses at once (just count the number of adjectives!). Sometimes “bhang” (marijuana) is added to this drink as well – talk about being H-A-P-P-Y! We won’t be spiking this one today (so that I can actually finish this post, but you are welcome to try!)
It requires a bit of ingredient gathering and soaking ahead of time, but the steps are just a few with very limited hands-on time.
To make 4 servings (medium glasses): we start by soak 3-4 tablespoons each of almonds (no skin), cashews and poppy seeds, and 6-8 dried or regular dates (pitted) in water for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
When the seeds turn into mush with medium pressure in between your fingers, they are ready, but softer the better. Discard the soaking water and rinse lightly. Blend in a wet grinder into a smooth paste that is completely silky and soft to the touch. You can use up to 3-4 tablespoons of water to help the grinding process, to yield a heaped cup of the paste. Set aside if using immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days if using later.
Now, to spice up the Thandai: in a coffee or spice grinder, place 8-10 black peppercorns, 3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon cardamom seeds or cardamom powder (which I usually have on hand) and 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg. You can add or substitute spices based on taste and availability but make sure you don’t skip the peppercorns – they add a surprising depth to this drink! Grind and set aside if using immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 4 days if using later.
In a medium saucepan, place 4 cups of whole milk, or almond or cashew milk (to make this drink dairy-free) along with 4 tablespoons of sugar, and heat on a medium-low flame. I prefer less-sweet beverages in general but particularly in this case, if the milk is over-sweetened, it would completely overpower the subtle flavor of the nuts and spices. That said, add as much or as little as you prefer.
I also added 4 tablespoons of Chia seeds for additional texture – again, completely optional and not really authentic.
Also, I added 4 teaspoons of Gulkand – pronounced “gool-kand” a very special and unique Indian rose petal jam – to the milk. I brought this tin in an Indian grocery store in Artesia (Los Angeles area) as far as I recall. Alternatively you can add a scant teaspoon of rose essence/extract (depending on the intensity) or couple tablespoons of rose water (typically found in middle-Eastern grocery stores). These ingredients impart a lovely fragrance and taste to the milk, with floral notes. If you are skipping the Gulkand and/or rose water, you may want to bump up the sugar by an additional 2 tablespoons, to taste.
If using dairy-free milk, such as almond or cashew milk, just warm the milk up to a gentle simmer, stirring from time to time. Do not let it boil or it may start separating. If using whole milk, heat the milk to a boil and then reduce to simmer.
Add nut paste and dry spice mix, and stir to combine well, while still on the heat. Adjust the taste: mixture should taste slightly spicy, sweet and rich. If you prefer a silky smooth texture, you may strain the milk at this point. I prefer the slightly chunky texture, so I simply pour the milk into an airtight container, seal shut and then chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Make sure the container is airtight so that the milk doesn’t pick up random smells from the refrigerator!
Chilled Thandai keeps in the fridge in an airtight container for 3-4 days. When you are ready to serve, pour into glasses..
And garnish with chopped pistachios and fresh or dry rose petals.
If there are prettier ways to welcome Spring, I am not aware of them!
You may also add a few strands of saffron, warmed up a couple teaspoons of milk. Serve absolutely chilled and enjoy!
Serve the Thandai and Halwa as dessert after a day of being out and about, having fun with friends and family – you may end up hosting everyone for Holi for the rest of your life!
Wishing you and yours a very Happy Holi and a bright and happy Spring season!
• Recipes •
Moong Dal Halwa/Sheera (Sweet Lentil Porridge)
Loosely inspired by an Indian cooking show on the “FoodFood International TV channel” on lazy Saturday afternoons
Makes 6 small or 4 large dessert portions
1 cup yellow moong dal (lentils) sorted, thoroughly rinsed in clean water 2-3 times
3-4 cups of tap water for soaking the lentils
3 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon coconut oil, divided
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk (or combination of full-fat coconut cream and water, or full-fat coconut cream, depending on preferred richness)
2/3 cup granulated white sugar
4-5 green cardamom pods, lightly smashed (with seeds)
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder (depending on preferred intensity)
2-4 tablespoons raisins (to taste and liking)
5-6 saffron strands (optional)
Soak the rinsed, clean lentils in 3-4 cups of water for a atleast 4 hours, or preferably overnight. Discard soaking liquid and rinse lentils again. Blend into a smooth paste and set aside.
In a wide, nonstick saucepan, add 1 tablespoon coconut oil and melt over medium heat. Once the oil has heated slightly, fry the cashew pieces until golden brown. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and drain over a paper towel. Set aside to cool for garnishing later.
Lower heat to medium-low. In the same nonstick saucepan, add 3 tablespoons coconut oil and melt over medium-low heat.
Once the oil has heated slightly, add the lentil paste to the pan and mix well. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring every 3-4 minutes, for 20-30 minutes.
While that happens, in a small saucepan, combine the coconut milk, sugar and smashed cardamom pods, and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Keep warm on medium-low heat until lentils are ready.
Once the lentils no longer taste “raw” and smell toasty, strain the coconut milk and sugar mixture in (make sure cardamom pods are discarded). Add raisins and cardamom powder and stir the mixture well with a wooden spoon.
Cook for medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes or until all the water has disappeared and the mixture is cohesive and sticky and starts separating from the edges of the pan. Mixture should taste completely cooked and toasty, and appear golden brown.
Transfer to serving bowl(s) and garnish it with cashews (fried earlier) and strands of saffron.
Thandai (Chilled Sweet-Spicy Spiced Milk)
Adapted loosely from various sources
Makes 4 small servings
For the nut mix
3-4 tablespoons whole or slivered almonds, no skin
3-4 tablespoons cashews, raw
3-4 tablespoons poppy seeds
6-8 dried (khaarik) or regular pitted dates
2 cups of water for soaking
For the spice mix
1 tsp green cardamom powder or seeds
8-10 black peppercorns
3/4 teaspoon raw fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the drink
4 cups milk (whole milk, or non-dairy milks such as almond or cashew)
4 tablespoons crystallized or granulated sugar (add 2 more tablespoons if not using Gulkand [next])
4 teaspoons Gulkand (rose petal jam) (optional) – or –
1 teaspoon or to taste, rose essence (optional) -or –
2 teaspoons or to taste, rose water (optional) – or –
4 tablespoons chia seeds
saffron strands (soaked in couple tablespoons of warm milk)
dried rose petals (optional)
fresh rose petals, whole (optional)
silver film leaves (varq) (optional)
In a medium bowl, soak almonds, cashews, poppy seeds and dried or regular dates (pitted) in water for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
In a medium saucepan, place the milk of choice along with sugar, and heat on a medium-low flame. Add one of the following – Gulkand, rose essence or rose water – if using. Add chia seeds. If you are skipping the Gulkand and/or rose water, you may want to bump up the sugar by an additional 2 tablespoons.
If using dairy-free milk, such as almond or cashew milk, just warm the milk up to a gentle simmer, stirring from time to time. If using whole milk, heat the milk to a boil and then reduce to simmer.
While the milk is heating up, discard the soaking water from the nuts and rinse lightly. Blend in a wet grinder (with up to 3-4 tablespoons of water, if needed) into a smooth paste that is soft to the touch. This will yield about a heaped cup.
Set aside if using immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days if using later.
In a coffee or spice grinder, place black peppercorns, fennel seeds, cardamom seeds or cardamom powder and ground nutmeg. Grind and set aside if using immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 4 days if using later.
Add nut paste and dry spice mix to the simmering milk and stir well to combine, while still on the heat. Adjust the taste: mixture should taste slightly spicy, mildly sweet and rich.
Strain (if preferred) or pour the milk into an airtight container, seal shut and then chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Chilled Thandai keeps in the fridge in an airtight container for 3-4 days.
When serving, pour chilled milk into glasses and garnish with saffron, crushed pistachios, rose petals (if using) and silver film leaves (if using). Serve chilled.