School buddies are always special, you create a treasure trove of memories with them. Memories that endure even as those hairlines begin to recede or grey. I'm glad that I'm still in touch with most of my school mates and continue to create fresh memories with them. Shaik Ibrahim, is one of my class mates who shares my curiosity and passion for food, particularly desserts. I caught up with him during a recent batch reunion and the conversation drifted to Muscoth Halwa and a feature that I put together for NDTV Food. Shaik's family hails from Ramanathapuram in Southern Tamil Nadu that's a short distance from Rameswaram, a popular pilgrim centre and a scenic beach destination.
Shaik spoke about another type of halwa which he believed was very similar to Muscoth halwa that is associated with Mudalur, a village about an hour away from the port city of Tuticorin. Many of his family members are still in Ramnad and also have strong connections with Kilakarai, an important coastal town that was once a key hub in the erstwhile pearl belt of the state around the Gulf of Mannar. I had driven through this town enroute from Rameshwaram to Tuticorin a couple of years ago. Kilakarai is home to one of the oldest mosques in the world. The Palaiya Jumma Palli (Old Jumma Masjid) or Meen Kadai Palli is believed to have been constructed between 628-630 AD and was reconstructed in 1036 AD. It's considered one of the finest and earliest examples of Dravidian Islam architecture.
Kilakarai also has a strong culinary heritage with unique dishes like the ghee rice, coconut milk rasam and it's most famous sweet - the thothal halwa. This sweet was the topic of my conversation with Shaik who believes that it might have found its way to Kilakarai via a very circuitous route. It's the Portuguese that connect the different dots in this route - Indonesia, Sri Lanka and probably Goa too. Goan cuisine aficionados will know of dodol - that's also one of my favourite Goan dishes, a sweet with Indonesian roots that is crafted with rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. The thothal halwa isn't just a similar recipe the very name of the sweet is a rehashed version of dodol. Locals call this lothal and even nudhal; it's easy to pronounce but it's tough work to make.
Uzair Ahmed's family calls Kilakarai home and he tells me about how many home makers in Kilakarai work four to five hours a day to produce large quantities of this halwa. Most of this is sold by sweet shops and bakeries like Master Bakery from where Shaik sourced this delicious sweet for me. Uzair also studied in school with me and has been involved with many successful food and restaurant ventures in Chennai. For him this sweet is an integral part of Kilakarai's heritage. Locals like Uzair believe that this sweet reached Kilakarai through Sri Lanka about two centuries ago although the original roots could be in Indonesia.
The key differentiator in this sweet is the use of palm jaggery or karuppati and coconut milk instead of ghee that's the key ingredient in Tamil Nadu's most famous halwa - the Tirunelveli halwa. This unique mix of ingredients also lends to the textures - it's not as hard as the Bombay halwa and not as slithery as the Tirunelveli halwa. The textures and the dark colour are almost similar to the Goan dodol. Just like the dodol cashews and cardamom powder are also in the mix. It's tough work to make this sweet; the key step is stirring the halwa as it acquires a glutinous consistency. As Mariam Zahir (Uzair's niece) puts it, making the thothal halwa is a good workout for your arms. Try her recipe if you can spare a couple of hours and don't forget to track the workout on your Fitbit:
How To Make Thotal Halwa:
Recipe courtesy - Mariam Zahir
- 4 cups grated coconut
- 250 grams palm jaggery
- 1 cup rice flour
- 7 cashew nuts
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- Add 1 2/3 cups warm water to the grated coconut and pulse in the food processor to extract thick coconut milk.
- Strain through a sieve making sure to extract all the thick milk. Keep aside.
- Add 2 cups warm water to the chaff, pulse and extract thin coconut milk.
- Mix 250 grams palm jaggery with the thin coconut milk and stir until fully dissolved.
- Strain through a sieve into a heavy bottom vessel and add the rice flour into it.
- Mix until no lumps remain and add 3 pinches of salt.
- Place the vessel on the stove top over medium heat, keep stirring.
- Once the mixture comes to a boil, add in the thick coconut milk.
- Keep stirring (this one's a good arm work-out for you) until the mixture thickens and begins leaving the sides of the vessel.
- Add in the cardamom powder and cashew nuts and mix well.
- Transfer to a prepared dish and eat immediately. (This is probably the best way to enjoy the sweet; fresh, hot and just off the pan)
You could also allow it to cool for 4 hours and cut through it before serving.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.