Early fall usually sees homes decked out with cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns, and creepy ghouls ahead of Halloween. But for Hindu communities that celebrate Diwali, it’s the season to light lamps and brighten up their homes.
Diwali, or Deepavali, is among the biggest South Asian festivals of the year. The name refers to the line (avali) of mud lamps (deepas) that people use to decorate their homes. It’s known as the festival of lights and symbolizes the victory of good over evil. For some, it is also the start of the new year. Since Hindus follow a lunar calendar, the date of Diwali celebrations changes each year, but usually, the holiday falls in October or November. This year, Diwali will be celebrated on the weekend of November 12.
In north India, Hindus celebrate Diwali as the homecoming of Lord Ram after he defeated King Ravana in Lanka, as told in the Ramayana. For many south Indians, Diwali marks the event when Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, killed the demon Narakasura. Celebrations vary across India and can go on for up to five days. They include cleaning homes, lighting lamps, and decorating doorways with elaborate rangoli patterns made of flowers, colorful sand, and even rice flour. People buy gold, wear new clothes, and pray to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, for a prosperous new year.
For Bay Area baker and Masterchef alum Hetal Vasavada, the author of Milk and Cardamom, Diwali was a family affair. Vasavada grew up in New Jersey and had many uncles and aunts nearby. Diwali day would begin with wearing new clothes, going to the temple, and then visiting each relative’s house. The day would end with a potluck dinner at someone’s home. Gujaratis, the community that Vasavada is from, also celebrate the start of the new year, so the celebrations were doubly special.
The meals starred items including puri, a kind of fried bread; a curry of kala chana or black chickpeas; and lots of sweets or mithais made from scratch, Vasavada says. There were diamond-shaped kaju katlis made from cashews; squishy gulab jamuns soaked in sugar syrup, sheera, or semolina halwa; and shrikhand, a dessert of strained yogurt flavored with saffron and cardamom. Vasavada’s favorite was always the fruit salad, which had chopped fruits with sweet milk and cardamom.
Her mom would spend the days before Diwali making trays of anjeer pak, a fig barfi, and mohanthal, another type of barfi made with gram flour, ghee, and sugar. The Vasavada family would also make laddoos together, and put a coin in one of them. “Whoever got the coin is going to have a good year, that was our tradition,” Vasavada explains.
Family also played a big part in Srijith Gopinathan’s Diwali celebrations. The Ettan and Copra chef grew up in his family home in Marthandam, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He would spend the festival with extended relatives who’d bring sweets and fireworks that the children would set off in the evenings. The day would start with Gopinathan’s grandmother applying gingelly oil on the kids’ heads and bodies. “It is said that it takes away bad habits, fear, and ego and makes you a better human, don’t ask me how,” Gopinathan says. The children would then line up near the family’s well where they were given a bath.
Another tradition involved the feast cooked for the day. As Gopinathan describes it, once ready, the food was laid out on banana leaves, traditionally used as plates in many parts of southern India, and kept in a locked room. The doors were closed for about 10 minutes so that departed souls could enjoy the food, he says. “We kids used to get irritated wondering when the door was opening,” he recalls. “My fear used to be what if they [the spirits] eat everything and go?”
The meal included rice; avial, a traditional Kerala curry-stew that can be made of vegetables such as yam, carrots, string beans cooked in a coconut-yogurt gravy; sambar, a lentil-and-tamarind-based stew with vegetables; and vatha kuzhambu, another tamarind-flavored tangy gravy. There’d be crunchy murukku, a salty spiral-shaped snack; pickles; and banana chips. “There were red bananas, short bananas, long bananas, we just got it from the backyard,” Gopinathan says. Curries would include thorans, which are essentially vegetables tempered and stir-fried with grated coconut. For Gopinathan, the highlights of the meal were the crispy vadas at the start and the sweet rice-pudding payasam at the end.
Diwali looks slightly different for both chefs now. Vasavada’s celebrations are multicultural, made up of Bay Area friends from different parts of India. Everyone sits on the floor to eat together, like her family did. She usually serves some form of chaat, the term for a group of sweet-and-salty snacks. This year’s request is for pani puri, puffed puris filled with potatoes, seasoned garbanzo beans and sweet and savory waters.
She also makes fusion desserts like gulab jamun cakes she first created in 2018, and which she says are now a tradition for many families who follow her recipes on social media. “My mum always said however your new year day goes is how the next year is going to be, that’s why you want to surround yourself with friends and family and have sweets,” she says. “That’s the mindset I have every year.” Vasavada has also released an e-book with Diwali recipes in time for the festival.
Gopinathan gathers with friends to celebrate the occasion, either hosting at home or attending Diwali parties elsewhere. He makes sure to cook a kheer, or rice pudding, in the morning and starts the day with prayers. The celebrations involve good conversations, playing carrom, and reminiscing about the old days, he says. “I personally miss a lot of the old Diwali celebrations,” he shares. “Those days are unforgettable.”