Diwali, or Dipawali, is a 5-day Hindu-originated celebration marking India’s biggest and most important holiday of the year. The holiday gets its name from the Sanskrit word meaning “rows of lighted lamps,” referring to the arrangement of clay lamps that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness. Also known as “The Festival of Lights,” Diwali coincides with the Hindu New Year but has become a national festival marked by most Indians regardless of faith, with Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs joining Hindus in celebrating.
The Diwali celebration is often accompanied by the traditional dances and music of India, as well as a festive array of Hindu dishes and plenty of sweets. Hetal Vasavada, MasterChef alumna, creator of the blog Milk and Cardamom, cookbook author and Bay Area resident, has fond memories of her Diwali feasts, and continues to celebrate the holiday with her husband and child. Read on to learn about the types of traditional snacks she prepares, plus snag Hetal’s marvelous recipe for chai panna cotta. (You could plate it in a beautiful ramekin, or set out votive candles as a nod to the shimmering aspect of the holiday.)
To prepare for the upcoming holiday, which is being celebrated on Saturday November 14th this year, join Hetal’s online cooking class to learn how to prepare the cardamom-spiced pound cake infused with saffron and rose water known as Gulab Jamun Cake (above) and take some time to check out her e-book, Diwali Desserts, which is devoted to the sweets of the season.
Describe your annual Diwali traditions.
Growing up, Diwali typically consisted of waking up super-early in the morning and going to temple and then visiting family and friends to wish them a happy Diwali and New Year! As I got older, it turned into massive elaborate dinners filled with chaats, roti, hot daal, and more once a year with family (think: Indian Thanksgiving). Now that I’ve moved to the opposite side of the country, Diwali usually means care packages from my family and small intimate dinners with my friends here in the Bay Area. I usually stick to chaats (Indian street food) as they are simple to make and everyone loves a good chaat!
How will you celebrate this year?
This year to celebrate I’ll be doing a little socially distant event with a few parent-friends where we’ll have our little ones painting diyas (little clay pots that are usually filled with ghee or oil and a cotton wick that is lit for Diwali) and light some sparklers! Diwali is the festival of light and goodness and I want my daughter to have fun Diwali memories as I did.
Unfortunately, my entire family lives on the East Coast, so this year isn’t too different than the last 8 years for me. We’ll be sending each other care packages fill with sweets and savory little snacks. My mom usually sews a new Indian dress for my daughter (she used to sew me new dresses every year and now does it for Elara).
What do you commonly cook for Diwali?
Some sweets that are super common during Diwali are ghughra and peda/penda. Ghughra, also known as gujiya, are little hand pies filled with a mixture of nuts, milk fat and semolina, all spiced with cardamom. Pedas/pendas are little fudge-like sweets traditionally made from milkfat, but now in modern times are made with milk powder and sweetened condensed milk. Sweets are important during Diwali or really any Hindu celebration as the goal is to celebrate and start a new year or journey with a moment of sweetness.
What characterizes a Diwali sweet?
Milk and nuts. A lot of sweets, or mithai, are made with milk fat, milk, cream, and/or powdered nuts. Nuts are quite expensive and therefore used during special occasions. Milkfat gives the sweets a richness and natural sweetness.
How and when would you serve sweets during a Diwali celebration?
You would offer some to the deities in your temple first and then enjoy them afterwards. You give them in fancy decorated boxes to friends and family, similar to boxed truffles. I like to enjoy my sweets with a savory, spicy snack called chevdo for a salty-sweet moment!
At the end of a long Diwali day, my dad always asks for a cup of kadak chai, or strong tea. The tannins from the tea give this dessert a bittersweet flavor that I really love. Panna Cotta is traditionally made with gelatin, however, to make it vegetarian I used agar agar to set the custard. You can find agar agar, or china glass, at your local Asian grocery store. I highly recommend using CTC black tea to get the authentic kadak chai experience.
This recipe is super flexible. You can substitute heavy cream for coconut cream or any non-dairy milk to make it dairy-free. YOu can also swap out the sugar for any sweetener you like. Feel free to add cinnamon, star anise, or any other spices to the mix to make it your own!