tirunelveli halwa

Thirunelveli Halwa – how to get it right?

A bit about the town and its famous sweet

If you have any knowledge of the place Tirunelveli, then you would also have knowledge of the fact that it is famous for a sweet originating from there, the Tirunelveli Halwa. Tirunelveli is 700 km from Chennai and if you are an avid driver, then this route is for you. A mere 85km and a one hour drive from Kanyakumari, this town boasts of the famous Tirunelveli Halwa sweet from the Iruttukadai (dark shop).

Made with Tamiraibharani water, and a secret formula, people queue up for the only 2-3 hours of time for which the shop remains open during the evening hours to gobble up all the Halwa made there. The sweet made from wheat, ghee and sugar laced with nuts is a treat to the taste buds though I must warn you that this is the most fattiest combination of ghee and sugar and is almost on the lines of Gulab Jamoon.

So what makes the Tirunelveli halwa so great in taste?

A few pointers

  • It is made with Karupatti or palm jaggery (I have not used that in my preparation)
  • It is made with Thamiraibharani river water (which has a high concentration of copper content)
  • It is served warm on a non sticky base
  • The ghee used is specific to the town in which it is made thereby making it more tasty
  • It slides off the spoon right into your mouth – one of the qualities not found in other halwa preparations

Shall we make the halwa at your home?

From a long time, I wanted to take on the challenge of getting the Tirunelveli Halwa correct in terms of proportion, sweetness, taste and the preparation in general. While some people use flour, some people do not. I tried to understand what makes the sweet preparation so arduous a task. The key elements about making this preparation is not to lose focus, understand a few things properly, time the whole process and go by gut feel as compared to just reading theory. The last element of gut feel is very important as what you see in front of your eyes is more important than what is written in the book. You need to really trust your instincts more than follow a process. So I will share with you here the exact steps to get it right, and if you did secure a win – leave me a comment about your experience in the comments section below.

Recipe and cooking steps for Thirunelveli Halwa

Ingridients

Following are the ingridients for this dish

  • Broken wheat – 1 cup (I used Double horse brand)
  • Sugar – 3 cups (split into 2 1/2 and 1/2 cups)
  • 4 cups of water for wheat
  • 1 cup and 1 tbsp water for sugar (for 2 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup sugar respectively)
  • Cashew nuts to taste – slightly warmed up in ghee
  • Pure Ghee (I used GRB ghee from TamilNadu since the dish itself is from that state)

Utensils

Normally I do not discuss utensils, but sometimes it is a matter of anxiety to many people who are not familiar with cooking. It is always better to use something that makes you comfortable. For this recipe, thankfully you need a minimal amount of utensils. They are shown below – 

New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos
  • a deep cooking vessel, non-stick preferably for the final dish,
  • a smaller vessel to caramelise 1/2 cup of sugar
  • two tall glasses with handles preferably
  • measuring spoons and cups – the standard ones available in all shops
New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos
  • fine sieve for filtering
  • few teaspoons for normal use
  • wooden spatula for mixing and stirring
New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos

Recipe

All you have to do now is follow the steps below exactly as specified:

  1. Take one cup of broken wheat (or samba godhumai) and immerse into sufficient water in the non stick vessel
  2. Keep it soaked for exactly 8 hours – its best if you leave it at 11pm in the night so by about 7am in the morning its ready to be used
  3. In the morning start compressing the wheat with your hands to bring out the wheat milk within – once you are sure the milk has come out, put it through the sieve and filter the milk into the glass shown above
  4. Add water again to the wheat and compress it again to bring out the milk again to fill up the second glass. You can stop this exercise when you find that no more milk comes out or it has turned watery. Remember to send it through the sieve to the glass (filter it)
  5. Leave the two glasses as is for anywhere between 2-3 hours to allow the white wheat milk to settle down to the bottom of the glass. Once done and you see that the water is clear at the top, empty the water out keeping the white sediments still in the glass and top up both the glasses with 4 cups of water in total (2+2) and leave it for a while more. This step is important to remove the raw smell of wheat from the preparation
  6. Roast some cashew nuts in ghee mildly and keep them aside for later
  7. Put 1/2 cup in the smaller vessel and 2 1/2 cups sugar in the bigger vessel
  8. For the 1/2 cup sugar add 1 tbsp water, for the 2 1/2 cup sugar add one cup water
  9. We need to heat the smaller vessel until the sugar caramelises. The indication for this will be that the sugar will start to heat and bubble up, the moment you see pale yellow colour reduce the heat, stir it and check if it is turning brown. Sometimes you need to even take it off the stove to check the colour. For me it took something like five minutes to see the pale yellow colour darkening by the minute. So when you find it good enough, switch off the heat. Remember, if you heat it too much the sugar will come out burnt and the whole 1/2 cup of sugary liquid is a waste and will have to be redone.
  10. The reason for doing step 9, is to get natural colouring for the halwa which is one of its strong points. 
  11. In parallel, start heating the 2 1/2 cup sugar + 1 cup water – keep the heat to a minimum to start with stirring the vessel with spatula often. Once the liquid sugar attains a reasonable heat, pour the 1/2 cup caramelized sugar liquid into the bigger bowl. Tip: Pour some fresh water in the smaller container and heat it up again so that the sugar syrup does not harden and stick to the sides of the vessel, its a pain to clean
  12. You need to now stir the bigger vessel until the sugar syrup starts to thicken. “Siru Kambi padam” is the terminology used to determine if the time is ripe for next step. What it means is you need to stir until the syrup becomes like a string when you expand it between your fingers. Tip: this is a hot preparation so this is pretty much not possible – trust your instincts on when you feel the syrup has become stringy enough, do not overheat at any point in time
  13. Basically when the sugar syrup thickens to a decent level and you can still stir it, add the wheat milk left over in the glasses to the vessel. From this point on it is a do-observe-repeat cycle.
  14. At this point if you smell the concoction, it will not smell like a halwa preparation – there would be a raw smell around it, but you need to trust yourself here a lot and continue stirring. 
  15. The whole stirring process will take 1.5 hours from here – it is extremely arduous but well worth it. 
  16. We need to add ghee to this mixture now. Many people have a disagreement on how much ghee to add. Some say you need to add so much ghee that it starts bubbling out after a while when the mixture thickens. Some also say you must add ghee every ten minutes once. But I did it differently.
  17. Keep adding 1 tbsp ghee every 5-7 minutes until you see that the ghee is being absorbed. Typically 7-8 tbsp of ghee will easily be absorbed. After this it is upto you if you wish to add more ghee. There is nothing wrong with it as it will come out after a while by itself. Tip: Never stop stirring the mixture since if it solidifies you can put an end to your experiment.
  18. At some point the whole mixture starts to thicken, but you still cannot lift it in bulk using the spatula. Ensure to stir it thoroughly – bring the portions of the bottom to the top and vice versa – swirl!
  19. As we further do it, the mixture begins to exhibit more and more strings and sugary glass like structure, keep stirring more and more while adding 1 tbsp ghee every 5 minutes or so.
  20. When mixture begins to become really solid to the extent that you can now lift it with the spatula in much larger chunks than earlier it is time to add cashew nuts.
  21. Around this time the ghee starts to bubble out of the halwa and the whole mixture has reduced from 3/4th of the vessel to 1/3rd of the vessel. 
  22. After a total of 1.5 hours since the start the halwa is made, the raw smell is gone and the smell of tirunelveli halwa is all over the air. 
  23. Leave the mixture to settle down a bit, switch off the heat, take some rest from all the stirring.
  24. Serve the halwa either in cups, or on plantain leaves. The halwa melts in your mouth!

Images to guide you

Initial heating of 2 1/2 cups of sugar into a stringy syrup

New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos

When the syrup reaches 1/2 the vessel with stirring – as you can see I already added the cashews – it didn’t matter

New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos

Here you can see that after a while more of adding ghee and stirring well, the glass like look is showing up on the surface

New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos

The finished product at 1/3 rd of initial quantity. 

New photo by Srikanth Eswaran / Google Photos

To conclude

Nothing is hard to learn. Even the most difficult recipe to achieve can be accurately got with focus on what you are doing, when you are doing which step and a keen eye for actuals rather than theory.

Look in front of you on how the product is shaping up and if you feel something is wrong set it right quickly – you are dealing with products melting under heat and you have one chance to get it right.

The good news though is – IT’S EASY!!

If you liked this post try it at home and share me your comments on how you vowed people around you!