Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs (on 24-28 October this year – dates vary according to the Indian lunar calendar) has become increasingly popular and mainstream in the UK, as it is in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore where the festive fare reflects local traditions. But beyond a vague notion of “eating Indian” most people outside the subcontinent are unfamiliar with common Diwali foods. So what is eaten during the five-day festival?
The immediate answer is sweets – and plenty of them. Indian sweetmeats, known as “mithai” are a cross between snack, dessert and confectionery. If there’s one thing that captures the Indian culinary psyche, it’s mithai. Little morsels are nibbled throughout the day, on their own, with masala chai or as part of a meal alongside savoury items.
Chickpea flour, rice flour, semolina, various beans, lentils and grains, squashes, carrots, thickened condensed milk or yoghurt are normally used as base ingredients; to which cashewnuts, almonds, pistachios, chirongi nuts or raisins are added. Fragrant with sweet spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg, they’re further blinged up with saffron, rose or kewra (pandan leaf) water, and silver or gold leaf.
While “laddoos”, “barfis” and “halwas” are universally popular, some of other items like “mawa kachori”, “moti pak” and “sohan papdi” are more regional specialties requiring elaborate preparation. It’s customary to exchange extravagantly decorated boxes of mithai, dried fruit, nuts or silver serving dishes with family and friends.
Around a month before the festival starts, women, especially of my mother and grandmother’s generations, get together in each other’s kitchens in turn to make the all-important Diwali snacks. Snack-making is very much a social activity, with older women turning out a dozen or more items and young people keeping the tradition alive by making at least a few.
Diwali snacks, made from chickpeas, rice, lentil and several other varieties of flours, are seasoned with different combination of spices, sesame seeds, fresh fenugreek leaves or coconut, pummelled into assorted shapes and usually deep-fried – though nowadays both mithai and snacks are available in low-fat, low-sugar and baked versions. It’s common for family and friends to drop around to each other’s houses with boxes of homemade snacks.
Festive specialities include Bombay-mix like “chivda”, with countless variations (each with a different name – I spotted “London mix” in a supermarket the other day), diamond-shaped “shakkarpara”, noodle-like “sev”, sweet, layered deep-fried discs “chirote”, and a range of sweet and savoury “puris” from puffed ones that look like UFOs, to ones dented with the back of a thin rolling pin that resemble the surface of the moon.
My favourite snacks are nutty lentil flour discs called “mathiya”, pretty spirals of “chakri”, and crescent moon shaped pasties known as “ghughra” or “karanji”. You can buy both mithai and Diwali snacks from Ambala, Royal and other Indian sweet shops around the country. If you’ve never tried them before, don’t be afraid to give them a go. Ask for small tasters before you buy; most shops will be happy to oblige.
Different speciality meals are traditionally cooked on different days of the festival, and these vary further depending on region. Generally speaking puris, traditionally deep-fried in expensive ghee and therefore rich in every sense, replace flatbreads; and are accompanied by a different dal, vegetable curry, fried titbits such as pakoras, collectively known as “namkeen” or “farsan”, and a pudding on each day of the festival. Many, though not all, Indians continue to eat vegetarian at this time of year.
On the first day (October 24), associated with wealth, large-grain cracked wheat sautéed with ghee and sugar known as “lapsi” is very popular, and may be accompanied by a curry of yard-long beans which, due to their length, symbolise longevity. On the second day (October 25), associated with the elimination of evil spirits, specialities include anarasa, a rice-and-jaggery dish that can take up to seven days to prepare. Light, fluffy urad lentil pakoras are eaten alongside the milky rice pudding, kheer.
Some festive dishes from around the subcontinent on Diwali day (October 26) include curry of courgette-like squash “galaka”, “ukkarai”, a steamed dish of split chickpea and moong bean batter; “sheera”, a fudgy sweet of semolina sautéed with raisins, cashewnuts, cardamom and saffron , steamed fine-grain cracked wheat porridge dolloped with ghee and sugar known as “kansar”, crumbly doughnuts “balushahi”, and sweet flatbreads stuffed with mashed pigeon peas, saffron and cardamom called “poli”.
On New Year’s Day (October 27), “puris” may be partnered with “shrikhand”, a chilled pudding made from home-made yoghurt cheese; and mixed vegetable curries made with as many varieties of vegetables as possible, as this symbolises year-round culinary riches. The day after the New Year (October 28) is a celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters. Women spend the entire day in the kitchen, making their brothers’ favourite dishes and sweets, and are presented with lavish gifts in return.
Diwali is a vibrant, colourful, joyous celebration expressed through the medium of food. Cooks find their creative spark with a side helping of therapeutic “me time” in the kitchen, jaded palates perk up and family and friends come together to eat. What could be more important?