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The Festival of Lights – Diwali

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The Festival of Lights – Diwali

Authors: Monica Bhide with recipes by Sudhir Seth


Close your eyes and picture this: You are on a hilltop, looking at a dark moonless sky. The dark night suddenly bursts with brilliant light. Colorful sparkles light up the sky as the firecrackers do their magic. You sense a glow, you look down towards the earth. A stunning view awaits you. Lights as far as your eyes can see. Lights in every shape and size, from small terracotta lamps to large lamps, a visual delight. You start to smell: delicious rice pudding, mouthwatering carrot halwa. You hear the children laughing, the bells in the temple chiming, the sounds of chants and prayers being offered. You feel a sense of warmth and wellbeing. Then you feel as though a gentle hand has patted your head. You, and those around you, have been blessed -- it is Diwali.

Welcome, to my memories of the quintessential Indian festival of Diwali or Deepavali (translates to “Rows of Lights”). This festival has crossed boundaries of religion and faith, creating a magical feeling of one community. Passed down through generations, the different intriguing stories of how Diwali originated, all focus on the eternal truth of good triumphing over evil.

The festival of lights is celebrated for five days every year during the darkest part of the Hindu month of Ashwin (October/ November). The celebrations include the lighting of lamps and candles and the bursting of crackers.



Prayers are offered. Sweets are prepared. There are frantic shopping sprees, spring cleaning of home and repainting of walls. People buy new clothes and in fact, in certain communities, it is absolutely essential to wear new clothes on this day. And if you forgot to snail mail your Diwali greetings, you can always send a quick Diwali e-card.

Did I mention, there is one other custom – gambling. It is all in fun, though, in a spirit of merrymaking.

Diwali, in North India, celebrates the return of the exiled India God Lord Rama after his enforced abdication as the royal heir to the Ayodhaya (an Indian city) throne. The people of Ayodhaya illuminated the kingdom with earthen lamps to celebrate the return of their king.


The business community in India also begins its new year on this day. It is celebrated by inviting the Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, into the house. According to a myth, Lakshmi will not enter a dark house. So homes are adorned with a multitude of lights and lamps. The lamps also welcome home the spirits of dead ancestors, who are believed to visit on this auspicious night. Prayer or puja is performed to welcome Goddess Lakshmi.

In some parts of India, mostly in north India, gambling with cards is an intrinsic part of Diwali celebrations. It is believed that the Indian Goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiv on this day. The legend goes on to say that anyone who gambles on Diwali will prosper throughout the year.

Each part of India offers its own legend as to why Diwali is celebrated. In western India, the legend of Diwali focuses on the demon of hell, Narakasura being defeated at the hands of the Hindu God Krishna. The demon was defeated and killed at the dawn of “Narakachaturdashi”. In South India, Diwali celebrates the Ramayana, the 24000-couplet epic that tells the story of Lord Rama. In eastern India, Diwali is celebrated in honor of the Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon. Durga is a powerful Goddess holding the javelin of Agni (the Fire God), the trident of Shiva ( The destroyer) , and the discus of Vishnu ( the Preserver).

Diwali would not be Diwali without food, and lots of it! Every kind of imaginable sweet dish in multitude of sizes, shapes and colors grace the tables on this day. Savories of every kind are prepared with equal enthusiasm. It is quite amazing to see the variety and the styles of the boxed sweets and baskets now available for Diwali.


All the women in our household seem possessed a few days before Diwali! Kneading Chickpea flour for Besan Laddos, frying flour dough in sugar syrup for Jalebis, boiling milk to prepare rice pudding, cutting, chopping, dicing. From Kulfi (homemade ice cream) to Carrot Halwa, the kitchen smelled like heaven on earth. These delectable pieces are first offered to God during prayers and then to the family to eat and celebrate.

However and wherever it is celebrated, Diwali is an occasion of joy and renewal. As the Bengali poet and novelist, Rabindranath Tagore, put it: "The night is black/ Kindle the lamp of love/ With thy life and devotion."

Chef Sudhir Seth and I would like to present you with some mouth- watering recipes that are served at Diwali meals. Enjoy these simple recipes. We have thrown caution to the wind as we present some Indian favorites (two are even deep-fried :smile: )


Chef Sudhir Seth and his team. He is in the middle

Aam Ki Lassi (Mango Yogurt Drink )

Serves 4

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: None

Note: You can use fresh ripe mangoes for this recipe if you like.


• 2 cups plain yogurt

• 1 cup canned mango pulp

• 1/2 cup water

• 10 ice cubes

• Sugar to taste (approx. 4 tablespoons)



In a blender, add the yogurt, mango, water and ice cubes. Blend well.


Add more water if you like a thinner consistency. Serve immediately.


Aloo Ki Subzi (Cumin Flavored Potatoes)

Serves 4

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Note: Cumin adds a heady aroma to any dish. You can even add dried fenugreek to this dish. Serve with Poori (fried Indian bread) from the recipe given below.


• 4 medium potatoes, boiled

• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

• 2 teaspoons cumin seeds

• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, roughly pounded

• 1 Jalapeno pepper, slit lengthwise

• 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

• 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

• 1 small tomato, roughly chopped (optional)

• Table salt to taste

• Water, as needed



Peel and dice the potatoes. Set aside.


In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil on high heat. Add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds and the pepper.


Lift the pan off the heat. Add the turmeric, red chili and salt. (The chef has added a bit of water here to show you how to keep the spices from burning )

Place the pan on the heat and add the potatoes.


Mix well to coat the potatoes with the spice mixture. Add about 3 – 5 tablespoons of water. (At this point, if you like, you can add the tomatoes and sauté for another 5 minute or until the tomatoes are soft ). Cover and cook for about 5 -6 minutes until the spices have released their flavors.


Serve hot garnished with chopped cilantro.


Poori (Indian Balloon Bread)

Serves 4

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cooking Time: 25 minutes

Note: This is a classic Indian bread – to be enjoyed this is best eaten hot.


• 2 cups Indian atta flour (whole wheat flour)

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

• Water, as needed

• Vegetable oil to deep fry


In a bowl, combine the wheat flour, salt and vegetable oil. Mix well.


Add water, slowly and begin kneading. Continue to add a little water at a time and knead until you have a smooth dough that is not sticky, 4-5 minutes If the dough sticks to your fingers, add a little bit of vegetable oil and continue to knead.


Cover the dough with a damp cloth or a plastic cover and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into 18 -- 20 equal pieces.


Roll into balls and cover with a damp cloth.


Heat vegetable oil in a deep fryer or a deep pan to 325 degrees F.

Roll out each poori to 4 inch circles.



Deep fry one poori at a time.


Lower it into the oil and use the back of your slotted spoon, to press down lightly on the poori. This will make it puff up. Turn it over and fry for another 20 seconds or until golden brown. Remove poori from the oil using the slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

Serve immediately.


Shahi Tukra ( Royal Bread pudding)

Serves 4

Prep time 30 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes


• 4 thick slices sourdough bread or plain bread

• Sugar Syrup:

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

2 -3 cardamom seeds, crushed

• Cream Sauce

1 quart milk

¼ lb. sugar

• Vegetable oil to deep fry

• 1 teaspoon slivered almonds

• 1 teaspoon unsalted cashews, roughly pounded

• 1 teaspoon raisins

• 2 teaspoons slivered pistachio nuts

Note: To save time, prepare the sugar syrup and the cream sauce side by side.


Slice the bread into triangles. Cut off the crusts. (TIP: See the picture – the chef cut off the sharp edges of the bread).


Place the bread on a flat tray and refrigerate for an hour or so. This removes the excess moisture from the bread. While the bread is cooling prepare the sugar syrup and cream sauces.

To prepare the sugar syrup:

Combine the water, sugar and cardamom seeds in a deep nonstick bowl. Heat over medium heat, bring to a boil. Simmer for five minutes. Simmer until the mixture gains a syrupy consistency. Remove from heat and set aside.

To prepare the cream sauce:

Add 1 quart of milk to a nonstick pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat

Continue to cook the milk until it reduces to about 1 pint. During the cooking process, scrap the cream that sets on the sides, back into the milk. Set aside to cool

Remove the slices from the fridge. Heat oil in a deep fryer or deep wok to 150 F.

Add one slice of bread to the hot oil. The oil will begin to bubble around the edges.


Fry for about a minute, flip over and fry the other side. The bread is done when the oil stops bubbling and the color is a dark brown.


Preheat the oven to 350 F

Remove the slices with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel

Now dip each slice into the sugar syrup, remove and place on an oven-proof dish. As you can tell we had a lot of extra syrup that we made.. way more than 1/2 cup!


Sprinkle the almonds, raisins and cashews on the bread. Pour on any remaining sugar syrup on the bread.

Now pour the cream sauce over the bread. Cover this dish with foil

Place in the preheated oven. Reduce the temperature to 175 F. Bake for about 30 minutes

Remove the foil. Increase the heat to 500F. Bake uncovered for 1 minute.

Remove from heat

Sprinkle pistachios and serve warm


For more simple Indian recipes:

The Spice is Right :blush::blush::blush:

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