LEFT: PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDRIA LO, COURTESY OF DIASPORA CO.; RIGHT: GETTY IMAGES
Culture

Decadent Desserts Are the Sweetest Diwali Tradition for These Tastemakers

Here’s what they’re cooking to celebrate the festival of lights, the brightest holiday of the year for Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world.

By SAVEUR Editors


Published on October 20, 2022

For Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs across the Indian subcontinent and throughout the diaspora, Diwali is among the most anticipated holidays of the year. Held on the 15th day of the month of Kartika on the Hindu calendar (usually falling between mid-October and mid-November), this festival of lights symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. The celebration is widely associated with Lakshmi, also spelled Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity, wealth, and good fortune. Families pull out all the stops leading up to the festivities: sprucing up their homes, illuminating them with lights and rangoli (colored sand art), and whipping up festive treats—especially sweet ones—for friends and family and as offerings to the gods.

We chatted with 11 tastemakers who shared what decadent Diwali snacks are their favorite, how they’re recreating childhood traditions in the U.S., and why The Office gets them into a festive mood.

Left: Sana Javeri Kadri (Photography by Melati Citrawireja); Right: Vishal Ramakrishnan (Courtesy of Kanira)

Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of single-origin spice company Diaspora Co.

"I left Mumbai 10 years ago and moved to California. Because the busiest time of year for a small business like mine is the holidays, I haven’t been able to go back home for Diwali in a decade, which feels wild.

When I was growing up, my paternal grandma would make gajar ka halwa, a carrot pudding spiced with cardamom, cooked down really slowly until it has a melt-in-your-mouth texture and really rich consistency. That’s one special dish I’ve started to recreate here in the States. I actually don't make gajar ka halwa any other time of year because I want it to feel really, really special on Diwali. Over the past couple years, we’ve hosted my South Asian friends and members of my team for a small celebration. We’ll play cards and eat gajar ka halwa and—even though it is not very Diwali-appropriate—make really stiff gin-and-tonics from my collection of great Indian gins. It’s about gathering together with our chosen family and keeping the Diwali spirit alive."

Vishal Ramakrishnan, founder of breakfast biscuit company Kanira in New York City

"Diwali is such an important festival for Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. The origins of the festival stem from the ancient Sanskrit poetry text of the Ramayana, which describes Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, returning to his kingdom after spending 14 years in exile and defeating the demon king Ravana. The sweets we enjoy during Diwali are to celebrate the return of Lord Rama and to mark the beginning of a bright, joy-filled new year.

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I have a sweet tooth that somehow manages to stay in check until this time of year. My friends and family who hail from various parts of India prepare diverse treats like rasgullas, gulab jamuns, jalebis, and chocolate barfis. As for my family, we hail from Tamil Nadu, and one of the dishes we always make during Diwali is mysore pak, a sugary and mouth-wateringly delicious sweet made with ghee, sugar, and chickpea flour. My mom's recipe was passed down to her from her great-great-grandmother and is a family favorite. There's not a sweet that can escape my grasp during this time. 

Ask a friend, neighbor, or co-worker who celebrates Diwali about the festival and all the traditional sweets, and you'll more than likely get invited to a party!"

Left: Lavanya Krishnan (Courtesy of Boxwalla); Right: Pooja Bavishi (Photography by Morgan Ione)

Lavanya Krishnan, co-founder of curated subscription company Boxwalla

"Since Diwali often inconveniently falls on a weekday, our celebrations in the U.S. invariably happen over the weekend. My husband (and co-founder!) Sandeep Bethanabhotla and I get together with neighbors for festive potlucks that feature everything from biryani to chole to a variety of South Asian sweets. We also make a point to visit Rajdhani in Artesia, California (not to be confused with the restaurant chain in India). Run by a Gujarati family, it’s one of our favorite Indian restaurants—we’ve been enjoying the thali there since 2006.

When we were growing up, Diwali always meant a morning oil bath: massaging the scalp and body with sesame oil, followed by washing the hair with Shikakai (soapnut powder). Apparently, the reason for using sesame oil is that Goddess Lakshmi hides behind a sesame tree before entering the house on Diwali. The ritual also symbolizes bathing in the holy river Ganga.

If you didn't grow up celebrating Diwali but would like to share in on some traditions, how about: washing your hair after an oil massage (bonus points for using Shikakai paste in lieu of shampoo), playing Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute's "Happy Diwali" song from The Office to help you get into the mood, eating at your local Indian restaurant (don’t forget to wish everyone there a Happy Diwali!)"

Pooja Bavishi, founder of ice cream shop Malai in Brooklyn

"For me, ghughra is Diwali. They’re flaky pastry pockets filled with mavo (milk solids), sugar, ground nuts, ghee, and cardamom. To be honest, I didn’t even know what ghughra was until my twenties; when I was in college, my best friend received a Diwali care package from her mom that included ghughra. I mentioned it to my mom, who told me that her family made it every year—turns out it was my grandmother’s favorite Diwali sweet! In the years since, not only do we make it every year, I’ve also gotten tutorials from my aunt and grandmother and have perfected the recipe. I even turned it into an ice cream flavor at Malai.

I finally had the chance to celebrate Diwali in India about 10 years ago, and it was exactly as my parents had described it when I was growing up. All the houses were lit up, every home was full of snacks and sweets, and we started each day by going to the temple. The best part of it was that I got to spend that Diwali in India with not only my parents, who were celebrating in India for the first time in a long while, but also my grandparents, who loved watching me experience what was essentially my first Diwali. It’s something I’ll never forget."

Harshit Gupta (Courtesy of Madhu Chocolate)

Harshit Gupta, co-owner of bean-to-bar brand Madhu Chocolate in Austin

"Every Diwali, I love to cook our traditional Rajasthani food, like dal, baati, gatte, and churma. It brings back so many beautiful memories from my past, connects me back to my roots, and lets me relive Diwali celebrations when I was back in India with my family. Gujiya, a fried puffed pastry with a sweet filling featuring raisins and saffron, is especially nostalgic for me—my mom would only make them during Diwali season, and my sister and I would go crazy for them. 

I haven’t had the chance to go back to India for Diwali since 2008, but my husband (and co-founder!) Elliott and I, along with our dogs Pablo and Rani, keep the traditions alive by celebrating with grandeur. We deck our entire house, inside and out, with lights and lanterns every year, and we host a small Lakshmi puja (ritual to venerate the goddess).

If you get invited to a Diwali party, please do say yes! The food, puja, and decorations all symbolize this festival, and I'm sure every person who celebrates Diwali will be more than happy to share what Diwali is, what it means to them, and the mythology behind the festival."

Left: Vishwesh Bhatt (Photography by Sierra Dexter); Right: Farah Jesani (Courtesy of One Stripe Chai)

Vishwesh Bhatt, cookbook author and executive chef at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

"There are two dishes that represent Diwali for me. The first is mohanthal, a fudge-like sweet made by slowly roasting coarse chickpea flour in ghee with cardamom, saffron, and mace, then folding in milk and sugar and slowly cooking it until the sugar is caramelized. Once it’s cool, we cut it into squares or diamonds. There is nothing better than a piece of warm freshly made mohanthal and a cold glass of milk. The other is puran poli, a sweet flat bread stuffed with sweetened toor dal filling. It is griddled on low heat until the outside is nice and crispy, then served with loads of fresh ghee. There was a time when I could eat four or five of these in one go.

Diwali is about family. When I was growing up, we used to all gather at my grandmother’s house to drink tea, and every morning for the next five days, everyone would be up before sunris. We would drink tea and eat fresh hot Bhavnagari Gathiya (fried chickpea-flour noodles). Lunch would be a large affair, after which we would catch a matinee at the theater then play a little gully cricket. The highlight, though, was lighting all the oil lamps and candles and shooting off fireworks in the night.

Alas, I have not been able to celebrate a proper Diwali with friends and family for more than 30 years. Yes, my parents and I did a small-scale celebration with some friends every year, but it was nothing like the Diwalis I grew up with. In the last 15 years since my folks moved back to India, Diwali has just been another day on the calendar, a busy fall day at the restaurant. This year, my friend Maneet Chauhan is throwing a Diwali party in Nashville to help celebrate the release of my cookbook, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef. I know that’s going to be fun, and for the first time in a very long time, it will actually feel like Diwali."

Farah Jesani, founder of beverage company One Stripe Chai in Los Angeles

"My husband is Hindu, and I am Muslim, and we are raising our seven-month-old daughter in a multicultural home where both religions are celebrated and honored. Since my husband and I were married, we partake every year in Dhanteras, which marks the first day of the festival, by setting up a small altar in a thali (tray) in which we place the idols of Laxmi and Ganesh. To the thali, we add fresh flowers, betel nuts, our wedding rings, and coins from past Dhanteras celebrations as well as new ones (some families have coins dating back 30 to 40 years in their thali!). We make a drink called panchamrut (literally translated as “five nectars”) with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and sugar. We then wash all the idols, jewelry, and coins with the panchamrut and water, as we worship the gods for prosperity, well-being, and happiness.

After we moved to Los Angeles last year, we discovered Arth Bar & Kitchen in Downtown Culver City and got to enjoy their special Diwali menu, which included the best gulab jamun ever. This year, we are looking forward to celebrating for the first time as a family of three."

Left: Chitra Agarwal (Photography by Raashi Desai); Right: Nisha Patel (Photography by Diana Biruk)

Chitra Agrawal, founder of food brand Brooklyn Delhi

"I don't deep-fry often, but Diwali makes me want to deep fry pakoras. My mother always made a mix of vegetable pakoras on Diwali, and that tradition stuck with me. My favorite kind is made with potato slices, and I love to dip them in Brooklyn Delhi’s curry ketchup.

Of course, sweets also play a big role, traditionally prepared as an offering to the Hindu gods. My personal favorite is my mother's gulab jamun, which she would only prepare on Diwali. And because Diwali coincides with the Hindu New Year, cleaning the house and buying new clothes are musts—it's a time to reset and shed what you don't need so you can move into the new year lighter and with more ease.

Last year, my parents came into town for Diwali, and it was very special to share a meal and sweets with them after not seeing them for so long. My kids are young, and through celebrations like these, they get to learn about not only the holiday but also their heritage."

Nisha Patel, owner of Bombay Curry Co. and Bombay Sandwich Co.

"As a child, I loved watching my mom and auntie cook Diwali snacks and sweets, but we couldn’t eat them until after we offered food and prayers to the gods. When we were finally allowed to dive in, I would happily munch on the treats all day long. Even after midnight, we kids got to stay up and eat more snacks, enjoy lots of chaat, and watch the stars from the terrace of our home.

Today, we’re passing on these traditions to our two daughters. We prepare a lot of different Indian desserts, including kaju katli (a confection made from cashew paste) and basundi (a sweet treat made from thickened condensed milk, saffron, and cardamom). During Diwali, it’s customary to offer sweets to friends and family as a gesture of gratitude, affection, and celebration."

Left: Sameer Kuthe (Courtesy of Baar Baar); Right: Kiran Verma (Photography by Chuck Cook)

Sameer Kuthe, chef de cuisine at Baar Baar in New York City

"Diwali was the most beautiful time when I was growing up, as I could eat loads of sweets (and like any child would say, that was really fun!). I’d help my family prepare besan ladoo, a gram-flour dessert flavored with cardamom. Later on as an adult, I’d prepare it myself for my grandmother—it was one of the Diwali dishes she loved most. 

At Baar Baar, we’ll celebrate with live Bollywood music and a special Diwali menu that includes jackfruit haleem and baked paneer pasanda. It’s always a fun time."

Kiran Verma, chef-owner of Kiran’s in Houston

"For me, a Diwali must-have is gujia, a sweet, deep-fried dumpling stuffed with a mixture of paneer, roasted cream of wheat, pine nuts, saffron, and cardamom, then lightly fried in oil. The foods we make for the holiday tend to be rich, decadent, and labor-intensive—not something you’d eat every day. That’s how you know they are very special dishes.

After a few years of canceled Diwali festivities due to the pandemic, it is wonderful to see people getting together this year and throwing parties again."

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