In late October, Monika Celly gathered her cooking class students and friends for an early celebration of Diwali, the most significant festival in Indian culture. We chose colorful Indian clothing from her wardrobe to wear, painted clay diyas (candle holders), made rangoli patterns with colored rice, and feasted on traditional foods and trays of sweets.
It was a delightful and delicious introduction to the holiday. Those who are familiar with it will start celebrating Wednesday. Diwali usually falls in October or November based on the Hindu lunar calendar.
“It’s a five-day festival of lights, which coincides with the Hindu New Year,” said Celly, owner of Polka Dots and Curry cooking classes. “There are many legends surrounding the actual origin, with a common thread of triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. We light candles to illuminate our homes and hearts so we can remove negative vibes and replace them with positivity and love for each other.”
Preparations for Diwali begin several weeks earlier, similar to the Christmas season.
“A few weeks before Diwali, people start cleaning their homes and offices, like spring cleaning here,” she said. “We believe this invites wealth and prosperity into our homes. And a week before Diwali, we start decorating our houses with colorful rangoli artwork and light up our homes with traditional earthen diyas.”
On the night of Diwali, people dress in their best clothes, often new.
“Ladies wear saree or a salwar kameez in rich fabrics and colors and adorn themselves with gold jewelry,” Celly said. “Men like to wear kurta pajama.”
People wish each other a happy Diwali, light lamps and candles, and offer prayers. This is followed by a family feast, an exchange of gifts and finally fireworks.
But ultimately, the food makes the holiday.
“Diwali menus vary from region and family food preferences,” she said. “Some prefer an all-vegetarian meal, and some prefer mutton or chicken. No matter what is being served, food will always play a central theme to the celebrations.”
Some of the dishes Celly has taught in her classes are likely to turn up at a Diwali buffet, such as samosas, fritters and street foods.
“Carrot pudding or rice puddings are very popular too,” she said. “Each family will have their own favorite meal with different curries, vegetable dishes and different appetizers.”
And for dessert?
“Diwali celebrations are incomplete without Indian sweets,” she said, “which come in a variety of colors, shapes and flavors. Saffron, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon — all these spices are used in the preparation of different fudges, more popularly known as barfi in India. … Most of the sweets are made from nuts, milk or milk products.”
Celly teaches many of these recipes, but if you’d rather buy the holiday sweets, Fahad Afeef has been stocking his shelves at Adam’s International Market with Indian cookies and candies since late summer. You’ll find all sorts of goodies in a variety of colors, shapes and flavors.
Some of the popular treats you’ll spot are kaju barfi (cashew fudge), ladoo (coconut balls), besan ladoo (sweetened chickpea flour balls), gulab jamuns (sweet dumplings made from flour and milk) and rasgulla (sweet dumplings made from paneer — Indian cottage cheese).
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