Food is at the heart of Diwali, and everyone has their festival favorites

These are the Diwali dishes that comprise my family's traditions.

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Diwali Khajur (nut) roll, chakri, and chevdo
Diwali Khajur (nut) roll, chakri, and chevdo
Photo: Pooja Shah

The routine on the first day of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is always the same for my family: We rise at an ungodly hour, energize with a steaming cup of coffee and biscuits, and jam to Bollywood music while decorating the freshly cleaned house with little diyas (earthen oil lamps), fairy lights, and intricate patterned rangoli designs made with colored rice, flower petals, and quartz powder. My favorite part, though, is sampling various snacks and sweets in the days leading up to this five-day celebration.

Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists globally, so naturally there are some regional differences when it comes to the food. Frankly, I’m not much of a cook, and have a never-ending list of excuses to get out of kitchen duties. But, when it comes to Diwali, cooking with my mom and aunts in a shared kitchen at one of our homes is a social tradition that I don’t want to miss out on.

The women will spend hours curating a special Diwali menu, dicing vegetables, sourcing the freshest fruits, blending fresh spices, and whisking up chutneys. The real showstoppers, though, are fried snacks and mithai. According to Hindu tradition, the ingredients in mithai (sugar, milk, ghee) are considered to be sattvic, or pure, and can be eaten by anyone including spiritual leaders and vegetarians, making them an optimal offering during religious ceremonies and large gatherings.

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As a Gujarati American hailing from the western coast of India, my family’s delicacies include plenty of sweets that are a combination of visually delightful sweets and fried snacks that pair well with alcoholic beverages or standalone nibbles. There’s a saying in my household: “Mehman Bhagwan hota hai’,” which is loosely translated to “Guests are God.” Food is at the heart of each family gathering, and a tribute to the hospitable Indian culture that emphasizes feeding, and cooking, with others as a labor of love.

Since I was young, my mom made chakri, a golden brown crunchy, savory snack made from chickpea flour, butter, red chilli powder, turmeric, sesame seeds, salt, and pepper to taste. The spirals are created courtesy of a hand gadget that releases the dough into a deep fryer. Once fried, the spirals are placed on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil and then lightly drizzled with a few drops of lemon juice. Since they have a long shelf life, they can be made days or even a week in advance and stored. My mom actually makes Diwali gift baskets for the family and chakri is featured annually.

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Over the years, we have tried to opt for “healthier” alternatives as our metabolisms have slowed down. My Ranjana aunty’s chevdo, a snack mix of fried lentils (or sometimes even cornflake cereal), peanuts or almonds, potato crisps, crispy sev, curry leaves, beaten rice flakes, and spices, is one of these choices and is the ideal marriage of sweet and savory. The spices, including curry leaves and green chillies, give the crispy snack a kick, but the sweetness of the peanuts and sometimes even raisins balance the heat. The thing with chevdo is that once you start eating it, it’s hard to stop.

I have the biggest sweet tooth—so much, in fact, that growing up my dad used to put all desserts in our house in a locked cupboard above the refrigerator so that they were out of reach. Now that I’m older I still love Indian sweets, but have opted for more nuttier and even healthier alternatives like this Diwali Khajur (nut) roll. 

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These balls of goodness are made from a mixture of dates, almonds, pistachio, cardamom, and sugar (optional) and topped with toasted coconut. The dates are ground, lightly sauteed in ghee, and then cooled. A separate mixture of the remaining nuts are blended and then added to the date mixture. My family likes to create small balls out of this mixture, though many opt to roll it into a log and then refrigerate it for a few hours. These certainly hold you over until the mains are served for dinner.

The only thing I love more than sweets are the quick, easy recipes that achieve the same satisfaction. A recent favorite dessert that I plan on making again this Diwali is chef Kamana Bhaskaran’s Diwali Ladoo Cheesecake Cups that I discovered while browsing Instagram last year. These no-bake Indian-inspired cheesecake cups are made from my favorite Parle-G biscuits that I am guilty of eating one too many of, plus cream cheese, condensed milk, and vanilla, topped with traditional Indian ladoos.

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Maybe one day I will be the woman leading the kitchen like my mom and all the generations of Indian women before her, but until then, these hacked Diwali desserts will do.

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