Many preparations are underway for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which starts on Monday.
There is cleaning and decorating the house, buying new clothes, visiting friends and family, and of course preparing and sharing meals. Foods associated with Diwali vary by culture, but one central theme is snacks and sweets.
This holiday honors Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Celebrate light over darkness, new beginnings, and the triumph of good over evil.
Roni Mazumdar is the founder and CEO of Unapologetic Foods, a restaurant group that includes Dhamaka and Smma in New York City. He immigrated to the US from Kolkata when he was 12 and misses Diwali in his youth.
“In India, all my relatives are there and that’s why it became Diwali for me,” he says.
For him, the sweets that encapsulate the joys of the holiday are Bengali sweets with fresh rasgullas, jaggery and a type of brown sugar.
“Imagine these little cheese dumplings soaked in sweet jaggery syrup that you just keep in your mouth all day long. It’s like God’s intervention in humanity,” he says.
The rasgulla he most associates with Diwali is made from norengur, a jaggery syrup made from date palm sap, harvested as the weather cools and Diwali approaches.
Milk is a big part of sweets in Kolkata and eastern India, he says. It is used in various sweets.
Cookbook author and James Beard Award winner Raghavan Iyer has fond memories of Diwali in Mumbai, where he lived until the age of 21.
“The food itself is important, but so is exchanging food with relatives and friends. That’s the fun part,” he says. “Growing up, we always knew which neighborhood house to go to. A really great house for good food.”
He fondly remembers rice-and-flour-based dumplings called kozkatai. His family has created two versions of him, a sweet one with fresh coconut and jaggery, and a savory one stuffed with lentils and chilies.
According to Iyer, Diwali has always featured bars made from kaju barfi, cashew nut puree, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. (Tip to his sister: He hopes you’ll send him something this year!)
And many desserts are finished off with a dip in sweet syrup, he says. One of his favorites is jalebi with chickpea flour. Soak in sugar syrup mixed with cardamom, saffron and lime.
A native of Queens, New York, Leela Mahase was raised in a Hindu family in Trinidad. Her Diwali treats include laddus, a paste made from ground peas and turmeric. She deep-fries it, mashes it, and combines it with a syrup made from brown sugar, various spices, and condensed milk. Molded into a ball to eat.
Mahase also makes prasad, which is made by toasting wheat flour with ghee and adding wheat cream. In another pot, boil the evaporated milk with water, raisins, cinnamon and cardamom. This milk-based syrup is added to a cream of wheat mixture and cooked until the liquid evaporates.It has a texture similar to mashed potatoes and is eaten with your fingers.
Manisha Sharma, a New York City attorney and mother of three, celebrates Diwali in the tradition of her family’s native northern India.
“Diwali is celebrated in a big way. We decorate our front door with lights, put up decorations, and eat delicacies we wouldn’t normally eat,” she says.
In India, she says, it’s common to give other people boxes or baskets containing food and gold coins with images of deities such as Ganesha and Lakshmi.
Sharma says, “As part of the worship when lighting a fire, we offer food to the gods. Always something sweet.”
She says putting crushed nuts in desserts is a traditional way of showing wealth and showing respect.Pistachios and almonds are popular.
Again, milk is used in many desserts, she says. Pirni is a ramekin-baked custard topped with pistachios and chilled. There is also barfi cut into squares that look like small fudges.
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