Say two words, ‘Multan’ and ‘winter’ in front of a foodie, and the next thing you hear will definitely be ‘Sohan Halwah’.
Sohan Halwah is to winter what mangoes are to summer, except it is not limited just to the winters. This famous mithai which has come to be the defining symbol of Multan is distributed all over the city (and even country) any time of the year.
The love with which it is prepared, packed, and presented to customers embodies the traditional hospitality of the people of Multan. When winters are just round the corner, customers prepare entire lists of people the halwah is to be sent to.
According to poet and historian Shakir Hussain Shakir, the tradition of sending Sohan Halwah to family members in other parts of the country and the world started when their daughters married into other cities.
Shakir says that Sohan Halwah used to be prepared inside homes. The item was commercialised only recently. Even today, Multan's residents continue to prepare it in homes and present it to guests at supper.
Legend has it that Sohan Halwah was prepared for the first time by a Hindu confectioner named 'Sohan'. The story is that this one time Sohan purchased some milk for his sweets, but the milk went stale. Instead of draining the stale milk, Sohan chose to experiment with it.
He put the milk on flame, and as the milk started getting thicker, Sohan added in some wheat flour to make it even more dense. Before long, he had on his hands a new, unique and delightfully sweet dish.
Sohan went on to distribute it among wayfarers and locals. Soon, the demand shot up and everyone thronged to Sohan's place for the new delicacy.
Sohan also presented the halwah in the court of ruler Deewan Sawan Mal, where his innovation was duly appreciated, lending even more popularity to him and his product.
Another popular narrative holds that Deewan Sawan Mal, appointed as Governor of Multan in 1821 by Raja Ranjeet Singh, was the inventor of the Sohan Halwah.
Yet another one says that the origins of Sohan Halwah go back way before Sawan Mal’s era; that the dish was prepared in huge quantities in the palace of Deewan Sawan Mal (a food lover), but it wasn’t invented there.
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Khaleel Ahmed, whose family is preparing Sohan Halwah on a commercial basis since decades now, maintains that Sohan Halwah has its roots in Iran, and the confectioners from Iran introduced it for the first time in Multan, from where it went to other areas of India.
Another commercial producer of Sohan Halwah, Noman Pirzadah, however, asserts that his grandfather learned to prepare Sohan Halwah from Delhi, and it would be inaccurate to say that Sohan Halwah was invented in Multan. But he agrees that no one can make as tasty a Sohan Halwah as the experts in Multan.
It may be that the halwah is no longer prepared in Iran, but it is still widely popular in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
‘Sohan Halwah le lein’ is a chant that you will hear at every bus stop in Multan. But the chant is not limited to bus stops and railway stations. You will find Sohan Halwah selling like hot cakes at the Multan Airport too.
In commercial brands, Hafiz Ka Multani Sohan Halwah, Hafiz Molana Abdul Wadood Ka Sohan Halwah, Pir Khasay Waalay Ka Qadeem Multani Sohan Halwah, and Rewari Walon Ka Sohan Halwah are known and loved across the country.
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Hafiz Habeeb ur Rehman, who started his Sohan Halwah shop in 1945 in Hussain Agaahi, says that among the different types, the popular one includes the one with almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios.
"We used to prepare it with saffron as well, but not anymore because good quality saffron isn't readily available."
With or without saffron, and invented by Sohan or Sawan, one thing is beyond debate: when made by expert chefs, this sumptuous sweet dish is arguably one of the most delicious of all local confectioneries.
—Photos by author
Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu here.