Food & Drinks, Life

When I found out my favorite Pakistani dessert had a racist name, I lost my appetite

I love habshi halwa, but I don't love the meaning of it.

When you love a dessert, you have very specific memories of it.

Maybe it’s because there’s a certain romance to the sweet finish of your meal. With habshi halwa, I remember fighting with my cousin over the only piece we had while stuck at my grandmother’s house in Karachi during the days following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

I remember realizing that my fiancé also loved habshi halwa and thinking surely this was yet another sign of ‘meant to be’ since I literally knew only two other people who loved it as much as I did. I once made my mom and stepdad drive all over Edison, NJ, in search of a mithai shop that sold it, because apparently all of Oak Tree Road had decided to deprive me of this joy.

So when I found out the very name of my beloved halwa was anti-black, I was stunned.

Halwa, or halva as it is sometimes called among many other variants, refers to a wide variety of solid, sweet confections found throughout Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and eastern and central Europe. The halwa I grew up with—the halwa of India and Pakistan— is typically made out of semolina (suji, as we call it), flour, ghee, and sugar.

Habshi halwa is a variation made with sprouted wheat (samnak) rather than semolina, and the recipe also calls for pandanus extract (kewra), saffron, and crushed nuts such as pistachios, almonds, and cashews.

The Urdu word habshi comes from the Persian habashi, which refers to the Habeshi, or Abyssinian, people. Basically, the dessert is named thusly because of its brown to dark brown coloring, similar to the skin tone of Abyssinians.

Now, I know some people are going to brush this off as not really racist.

One could argue that the word habshi is not a pejorative, but among non-black South Asians—at least, Pakistanis and north Indians— any word that refers to someone being black or African is essentially used in a derogatory way. ‘Habshi’, which is today used in reference to both Africans and black people, is certainly no exception. Even if it were, the fact that this halwa is being compared to an Abyssinian’s skin tone is inherently problematic.

Colorism is a rampant issue in South Asian culture, and non-black Pakistanis and north Indians are often the worst perpetrators. By defining the dessert’s color as that of a black person, you are also defining black people by their color.

It’s not okay. It needs to stop.

Once I realized the origin of the word, I was disgusted. All of a sudden, my habshi halwa tasted a bit sour. Racism is not a good flavor. While Africans and Black people don’t have quite the same brutal history on the Indian subcontinent as they do in the Americas, anti-Blackness is still ingrained in our culture. The Siddi or Sheedi, a native group of African descent in India and Pakistan, are still a marginalized minority and discriminated against on a regular basis.

Barely recognized as Indians or Pakistanis—which they are— and small in population, they are often disenfranchised and plagued by poverty. And although the dessert originates from Delhi, it is currently eaten wherever the Pakistani and North Indian diaspora resides.

Those of us calling it habshi halwa while living in countries that have thrived off the oppression of black people—and continue to do so— should know better and want to do better.

We need to stop referring to it as habshi halwa because we’re better than that. Perhaps samnak ka halwa is a better alternative.

I know I will get confused looks when I ask for some, followed by rolled eyes when I explain what I mean and why I won’t just call it that.

But I don’t mind.

I’d rather not have a bitter taste in my mouth when I’m trying to sweeten it with halwa.