Cyrus Todiwala: Sweet treats for Diwali
The Diwali celebration of happiness and freedom is, besides the fun and frolics, best demonstrated by the great food that’s made in homes across India. Our own family is not Hindu (we are Zoroastrian), so we do not celebrate Diwali as a religious festival. For us, Diwali (or Deepvali) is a time for greeting visitors who drop in for tea and whatever you can put on the table - everyone is in the mood for sharing sweets and sweetmeats as a gesture of happiness.
But first, a little background: Diwali represents the return of The Lord Rama from exile by Ravana who could change form at will. Different ceremonies take place in different parts of the nation and each has its own angle, zest, excitement and pizzazz. The joy of Rama returning to his kingdom is celebrated by lighting oil lamps called Diyas to welcome him back to Ayodhya.
My childhood memories of Diwali are of awaiting masses of gifts and sweets. Baskets of stuff would arrive: fruits, dried fruits, nuts, biscuits and rich sweetmeats made with condensed or reduced milk. I remember Bombay streets and alleyways at full blast with Petromax lamps pumped to give the brightest light to the massive array of sweets and goodies being hawked and sold all night long.
For visitors, tea - as always - is the best and warmest welcome you can give, served with delicacies such as puran poli. This chapatti-type bread is filled with sweetened ground lentils, then pressed and griddled. It can be eaten on its own, dunked into tea (as I love it) or dried and eaten in crunchy bits. For me, the Mahrashtrian community make the best puran poli in India.
Karanji (also called karanjia, neorio or gujiya in different parts of the country) is a semi-circular pastry filled with a variety of fillings from sweetened semolina to ground rice, or sweetened grated coconut. It is deep-fried - true masters’ pastry retains no oil and comes out clean and dry. Amateurs (like me) will produce pastry that looks and feels greasy. Karanji is one of the main sweets you would distribute to neighbours on festive occasions and, as I write this, women across the country must be toiling now to make them. My favourite are the moist coconut ones, though they do not keep very well.
Chiwada are made widely across the nation in different forms, but the prime ingredient is flattened rice. This is soaked, then slow-cooked in a karahi with things like peanuts, cashew nuts, chillies, salt, roasted chickpeas, roasted green peas, tiny bits of chickpea vermicelli, sugar, salt and fine potato strips. This is generally served with a spoon so people can take spoonfuls in the cup of their palms to eat.
Laddoos come in many forms. My favourites are the crunchy, brittle type made with sesame seeds or peanuts or a combination of nuts. However traditional Diwali laddoos are made with deep-fried chickpeas dipped in coloured, flavoured syrup and then rolled into balls. Gujarati laddoos are wonderful, but, as the saying goes in India, if you eat too many 'you become like a laddoo yourself' - that is to say, rotund.
Badaam paak is a seriously rich and sinful almond fudge made by painstakingly reducing milk with ground almonds for hours. This is Parsee-style fudge, but there is a multitude of other styles. In the north, Diwali fudge would be made with almonds, which are perhaps not as sinful.
During the festive season, women work hard to prepare the best fare for their families and friends. To me, the most skilled women in India are the Guajarati women - the variety of food is mind-boggling. Chefs like me can only envy them and be amazed at what their mothers taught them and how well they carry out their traditions. This is not to say that other Hindu women, or other communities including mine, are not skilled. To my mind the secrets and the many hidden gems of our great nation’s cuisine lie in the hands of women.
If you regularly celebrate this happy event, tell us what you like to make. Have you cooked Indian sweets before and can you share any tips?
Cyrus Todiwala is a regular guest chef on BBC One's Saturday Kitchen.