Diwali is celebrated by Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities all over the world every year – this year it falls between 6-10 November. We visited Zalena, who hosts Indian cookery classes and demos as Rose Petals and Rice, to find out about the food traditions associated with the Festival of Light.
Traditional sweetmeats known collectively as mithai are associated with Diwali eating, including the jalebi and gulab jamun that Zalena prepared for us. The jalebi are crunchy swirls of gram flour batter piped into hot oil before being soaked in sugar syrup; the golden colour is achieved with a mix of turmeric and paprika. Gulab jamun are perhaps best described as a rice flour doughnut doused in sugary syrup. They can be flavoured with anything from cardamom to vanilla to rose water and are delicious served warm with kulfi or cardamom ice cream.
Families and friends visit each other’s houses, where they might be greeted by chalk patterns drawn on the floor for good luck – and its obligatory to eat at every stop. While there are samosas practically on tap everywhere you go, Zalena says, there are plenty of other savoury treats associated with the week-long festival.
Different communities have their own dishes and recipes for special occasions like Diwali. In the Parsi community, of which Zalena’s family is part, a painstakingly prepared lamb biryani is the equivalent to a Christmas turkey. Another popular dish is cavabs. These spicy meatballs are prepared with finely ground mince – Zalena used lamb but chicken, beef or a vegetarian substitute will work. They may look unassuming, but they pack a huge punch, flavoured with a mix of spices and fresh coriander. Zalena says people attending her classes or demos are often surprised how little fat and salt go into her cooking. The cavabs, for example, are cooked in their own juices with only a pinch of salt added.
Then there are pani puri – a familiar street corner snack across India, but not so well-known here in the UK. Inside a thin, crispy shell Zalena packs a ‘Bombay mix’ of puffed rice, peanuts and sev, along with red onions, fresh coriander and a drop of chilli sauce. Then she spoons over melted tamarind paste dissolved in water. The extraordinary explosion of flavours and different textures in your mouth is something else.
Diwali is similar to Christmas in that everybody comes home to spend time with family and friends, according to Zalena. And just like Christmas, it’s when we bring out the rich, comforting, luxurious recipes that we might not indulge in for the rest of the year. Marking the end of the harvest and the darkest night of the month, the Festival symbolises the triumph of light over darkness, and is all about enjoying good food and good company.
If you would like to learn how to make delicious Indian dishes for yourself and your family, visit Zalena’s Facebook page, where you can also find details of her upcoming demos.
Rose Petals and Rice