The celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which begins on Monday, is in many preparations.
There’s cleaning and decorating the house, shopping for 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 Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. It celebrates light over darkness, new beginnings and the victory of good over evil.
Roni Mazumdar is the founder and CEO of Unapologetic Foods, a restaurant group that includes Dhamak and Semma in New York. He moved from Calcutta to the US when he was 12 and misses the Diwali celebrations of his youth.
“In India, every single relative would be there, which is why Diwali did it for me,” she says.
For him, the sweet that encapsulates the joy of the holiday is fresh rasgulla, a Bengali sweet with jaggery, a type of brown cane sugar.
“Imagine these little cheese dumplings drenched in a sweet syrup that you can shove in your mouth all day. It’s like a divine intervention of humanity,” he says.
The rasgulla most associated with Diwali are made from nolen gur, a jaggery syrup made from the sap of date palms, which is harvested as Diwali approaches when it cools down.
Milk is also a big part of Calcutta and East Indian sweets, he says. He loves kacha gulla, made from milk that has been curdled and has a loose texture “like ricotta cheese”. It is used in many types of sweets.
Cookbook author and James Beard Award winner Raghavan Iyer has fond memories of celebrating Diwali in Mumbai, where he lived until he was 21.
“The food itself is important, but it’s also about exchanging food with relatives and friends – that’s the fun part,” she says. “Growing up, we always knew which neighbors to go to – houses where the treats would be really great.”
He fondly remembers a steamed rice and flour 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 that Diwali has always featured kaaju barfi, sticks made of pureed cashews, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. (Hint to his sister: He’s hoping you’ll send him some this year!)
And many desserts, he says, are finished by dipping them in sweet syrup. One of his favorites is jalebi, which contains chickpea flour. Dipped in sugar syrup 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 from a paste made from ground 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. Form into balls to eat.
Mahase also makes prasad, which is made by frying flour in ghee and then adding cream of wheat. Boil evaporated milk with water, raisins, cinnamon and cardamom in a separate pot. This milk-based syrup is added to the cream of wheat mixture and cooked until the liquid evaporates. It has a texture he likens to mashed potatoes and is eaten with your fingers.
Maneesha Sharma, a lawyer and mother of three in New York, celebrates Diwali according to the traditions of northern India, where her family is from.
“Diwali is celebrated with grandeur. You decorate the front door with lights, put out your finery and eat treats you wouldn’t eat every day,” she says.
In India, she said, it is common to give others boxes and baskets of food and gold coins with images of gods such as Ganesh and Lakshmi.
Sharma says that “as part of the prayer service, when you light the flame, you offer food to the gods – always sweet”.
He says that including crushed nuts in desserts is a traditional way to show wealth and offer respect. Pistachios and almonds are popular.
Here, too, milk features in many desserts, he says, including phirni, a pudding baked in a ramekin, sprinkled with pistachios and served cold. There is also burfi, cut into small squares resembling fondant.
Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. You can contact her at Katie@themom100.com.