Many preparations go into the celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which starts Monday.
There’s cleaning and decorating the house, buying new clothes, visiting friends and family — and of course preparing and sharing food. And although the foods associated with Diwali vary from culture to culture, one central theme is snacks and sweets.
The holiday honors the goddess Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. It celebrates 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 Semma in New York City. He moved to the U.S. from Kolkata when he was 12 and misses the Diwali celebrations of his youth.
“In India, every single relative would be there, and that’s what made it Diwali to me,” he says.
The sweet that encapsulates the delight of the holiday for him is fresh rasgulla, a Bengali sweet with jaggery, a type of brown cane sugar.
“Imagine these little cheese dumplings that are dipped in a sweet jaggery syrup that you can just pop into your mouth all day long. It’s like a divine intervention of mankind,” he says.
The rasgulla he most associates with Diwali are made from nolen gur, a jaggery syrup made from the sap of date palms, which is harvested as Diwali approaches, when the weather gets cooler.
Milk is also a big part of the sweets from Kolkata and eastern India, he says. He loves kacha gulla, made from milk that has been curdled and has a loose texture “like ricotta cheese.” It’s used in many kinds of sweets.
Raghavan Iyer, a cookbook author and James Beard Award winner, has fond memories of Diwali celebrations in Mumbai, where he lived until age 21.
“The food itself is important, but it’s also about the exchange of foods with relatives and friends — that is the fun part of it,” he says. “Growing up, we always knew which neighbors to go to — the houses where the goodies would be really great.”
He remembers fondly a steamed-rice, flour-based dumpling called kozhukattai. His family made two versions: a sweet one made with fresh coconut and jaggery, and a savory one filled with lentils and chilies.
Iyer says Diwali always featured kaaju barfi, bars made from pureed cashews, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. (Hint to his sister: He is hoping you send him some this year!)
And many desserts, he says, are finished by soaking them in a sweet syrup. One of his favorites is jalebi, which features chickpea flour. It’s dipped in sugar syrup laced with cardamom, saffron and lime.
Leela Mahase from Queens, New York, grew up in a Hindu family in Trinidad. Her Diwali sweets include ladoos, which she makes with a paste made from ground split peas and turmeric. It is fried in oil, then ground again, and combined with a syrup made from brown sugar, various spices and condensed milk. It’s formed into balls for eating.
Mahase also makes prasad, made by toasting flour in ghee, then adding cream of wheat. In a separate pot, she simmers evaporated milk with water, raisins, cinnamon and cardamom. This milk-based syrup is added to the cream of wheat mixture, and cooked until the liquid has evaporated. It has a texture she compares to mashed potatoes, and is eaten with the fingers.
Maneesha Sharma, a lawyer and mother of three in New York City, celebrates Diwali along the traditions of northern India, where her family is from.
“Diwali is celebrated with grandeur. You decorate the front door with lights, you put out your finery, and you eat delicacies you would not eat on a daily basis,” she says.
In India, she says, it is common to give others boxes and hampers with food and gold coins featuring images of gods, such as Ganesh and Lakshmi.
Sharma says that “as part of the prayer service when you light the flame, you make a food offering — always a sweet — to the gods.”
She says that including crushed nuts in desserts is a traditional way to both demonstrate wealth and offer respect. Pistachios and almonds are popular.
Here too, milk is featured in many desserts, she says, including phirni, a custard baked in a ramekin, sprinkled with pistachios and served cold. There’s also burfi, cut into small fudge-like squares.