Figuratively and literally the most lit festival that exists, the word derives from the Sanskrit word “deepavali,” translating to “a row of lamps.” Mythology explains that it was first celebrated when after 14 years in exile, Lord Rama came home to Ayodhya in northern India and the entire village was lit up in his honor. Even today, Indians all over the world celebrate the five days that fall in the Kartik month of the Hindu calendar.
In a year different than any other Diwali before it, I checked in with chefs and food professionals—both in India and part of the diaspora—about what Diwali means to them, both generally and in 2020. One thing shone brighter than the warq on my kaju katli: While we may all have our cultural take and sui generis rituals, what accompanies the covey of sweets is a nostalgia-filled culinary narrative that is common to every Indian no matter where they are.
“It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve been at my parent’s house for Diwali. This year won’t be very different since most of my family lives on the East Coast. But my mom unfailingly sends all of her adult children a care package brimming with typical festive snacks like farsi puri: a crispy flour biscuit generously kneaded with clarified butter; chakri, which is a rice flour snack and peda made of milk solids.
“This year, if I can carve out the time, I’ll make Gujrati-style samosa at home. Unlike its North Indian counterpart, these are filled with diced potatoes, peas and minced carrots. Another favorite is methi na gota, a spicy snack made of fenugreek and chickpea flour. It’s going to be special because I’ve been growing my own fenugreek at home. However, Diwali isn’t official until we bring out the Mistry chevdo—a kind of trail mix filled with various kinds of lentils, flattened rice, peanuts, raisins, spices, and a little sugar.” —Preeti Mistry, chef & author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook
“I’ve celebrated every single Diwali outside of India, since I grew up in Houston, Texas, and feel lucky to have had an incredible group of Indian family friends who come together every year. Back home, my mom would make a feast featuring our traditional eats like masala dosa, idli podi, and also paneer ki sabji and naan, and we would eat jalebi and almond burfi until our stomachs hurt.
“Since my family is in Texas and I am in Los Angeles, I won’t be with them this year, but my husband and I are planning to make channa bhature, and get some Indian sweets and snacks from Surati Farsan Mart here in Southern California. The meal will end with chum-chum and an almond mithai. The holidays should find me some time to try my hand at making gulab jamuns, which are deep fried sweets made of milk solids. We are going to dress up, light up the whole house with candles, lights and oil lamps, and listen to some Carnatic music.” —Aishwarya Iyer, founder, Brightland
“Every year on Diwali, my parents threw a party at our place. What I looked forward to the most was my mom’s fried pakoras. She didn’t deep fry often but when she did, she would go to town on all sorts of vegetables. My shishito peppers bajjis recipe always reminds me of waiting by her side as she fried battered slices of potatoes, eggplant, onions, peppers in her kadai until crispy and golden. She’d sneak me a few hot ones before guests arrived which I’d ceremoniously dunk in sweet tomato ketchup, but my favorite part were the little pieces of fried batter she’d save just for me that I called ‘crunchies.’
“This will be the first Diwali my younger son Ravi will celebrate with us so I probably won’t give him any fried food but I was thinking of making kheer for him and his older brother Alok. Both boys have inherited a love of rice from me so I think it’s going to be a hit.” —Chitra Agrawal, founder, Brooklyn Delhi
“[In the lead-up to Diwali this year,] I loved reading this piece, in which the writer writes about how gajar ka halva—to her—will always remind her of Karachi. It resonates with me because whilst my paternal grandma was Hindu and always celebrated Diwali, she was also from Karachi. This recipe reminds me of my dadi’s Diwali gajar ka halwa, and I particularly love that while it reminds me of Diwali, it signifies Eid for someone else, also a Karachi resident. —Sana Javeri Kadri, founder, Diaspora Co.
“Each Diwali, I look forward to eating large helpings of moong dal sheera, a lentil-based sweet treat, doused in good-quality clarified butter every single year. Then there is lapsi, a broken-wheat porridge, and gulab jamun and kaju katli that are typical of any Diwali at the Biyanis. But our savory table is where all the magic happens. It’s laden with a mix of traditional Marwari eats like mangodi (dried lentil dumplings), a yogurt-based kadhi, fried gawar (an indigenous Indian vegetable juxtaposed with Lebanese and Thai food).
“Since this is going to be our first Diwali as a married couple, I will be celebrating it with my in-laws in Kolkata, a city away from my home in Mumbai, but the food-filled table will follow me. So what if there are no card parties and big gatherings this year? The culture of gift-giving and intimate gatherings will continue.” —Avni Biyani, founder, Foodhall
“Togetherness, celebration and food—that’s Diwali for me in a nutshell. And of course a zillion boxes of desserts to pack at work. My dad is half -Mangalorean and -Punjabi, but since we live in a state called Maharashtra, we are also Maharashrians at heart, with a Punjabi mother. So you can only imagine the influences in our rituals and dining table. Think typical North Indian samosas and jalebi placed next to bowls filled with local fried chickpea-flour snacks called fafda; plus generous helpings of dal makhani and crushed parathas.
I am so obsessed with a Diwali mithai called kaju katli that I actually did a kaju katli-inspired macaron range at my French-inspired patisserie. From visiting Mumbai’s Dadar market in search of the best marigold flowers, to putting a neat rangoli in front of our house, nothing changes this year, except we’ll be cooped up at home, as if it were Christmas on a snowy day.” —Pooja Dhingra, founder, Le15 Cafe & Patisserie
“For my family, Diwali is like Thanksgiving. All my cousins and their families spread across the world put in extra effort to plan their trips back home around this time. As a child, Diwali meant only one thing for me: cleaning the house. But there was also good food afterwards. Usually a pure vegetarian meal comprising a yogurt and cottage cheese gravy.
“If you’re familiar with Indian cuisine, you know that Indians will never mix the two, but this was specially made only for Diwali. Add to that bedmi poori, fried bread stuffed with a savory lentil filling, sweet and sour pumpkin, and dal. I have a vivid memory of my parents distributing at least 400 kilos of boondi ladoos each year and even today, I am in love with these fried and sweetened chickpea flour-based mithai, painted with saffron.” —Manish Mehrotra, corporate chef, Indian Accent restaurants
“As a child in India, Diwali was my favorite holiday. The fanfare began days earlier when boxes of sweets would begin to arrive from friends—my favorite being the cashew katli, a delicate milk-based cashew fudge topped with edible silver. A few nights before Diwali, we’d start lighting evening diyas, terracotta lamps in which a cotton wick flickered in warm ghee. My mother would order fresh flowers and an intoxicating perfume of marigold, tube roses, and jasmine would envelop our home.
“On Diwali morning, we’d eat a light lunch in anticipation of an elaborate dinner that would follow the Laxmi pooja, a prayer ceremony my mother insisted we participate in. My brothers and I would sit through it, anxiously awaiting the customary dinner of a seven-vegetable stew, pooris, and halwa, made with whole wheat flour and scented with cardamom.
“Many decades later, at Pondicheri, we serve that menu as a Diwali special. At home, meals aren’t always elaborate, and ghee diyas have been swapped out for electric lights. But Diwali continues to signify a time for spiritual regeneration and awakening.” —Anita Jaisinghani, chef-owner, Pondicheri
How are you celebrating Diwali this year? Let us know in the comments.