My mom is a decorative paper napkin connoisseur. A weird expertise, sure, but in her defense, the festive patterns add a little brightness to any occasion. When news hit the family WhatsApp account that Party City had Diwali napkins, they soon brightened our Diwali dinner table.
It was a moment of pride, of representation. Despite being celebrated by more than a billion people worldwide, Diwali-celebrators in the U.S. rarely see this cardinal holiday represented in mainstream U.S. culture or through the corporate curios we use to acknowledge holidays like elves for shelves or $5 novelty cards. (We haven’t had a Google Doodle since 2008).
At its core, Diwali, being celebrated this year on Nov. 4, is a festival of lights, the triumph of knowledge over ignorance. For Hindus, who make up the majority of celebrators, it is based on the legends of Lord Ram, the hero of the epic Ramayan, returning home after exile. His path home is illuminated by lights from the community, represented by the diya.
While cultural appreciation is often most easily performed through literal consumption, the foods connected with Diwali range significantly across religion, region, and generation.
Consider how fruit cakes line grocery shelves around Christmas, or matzah boxes are pushed to storefront displays during Passover. If I say pumpkin pie, you think Thanksgiving, while mentions of black-eyed peas evoke luck to Southerners on New Year’s Eve, and mooncakes conjure thoughts of the Mid-Autumn Festival. My family would celebrate many of these holidays secularly, through their corresponding foods, like when we served seven fishes on Christmas Eve, in a nod to my Italian uncle, or when, during Purim, I could enjoy my favorite apricot-filled hamantaschen.
Boston-based marketer Sandya Kola, whose family hails from the southern states of Karnataka and Telangana, begins her Diwali mornings by drawing intricate rangoli with her family in front of their home. With the entryway adorned, they might go to neighbors’ houses to exchange gifts and sweets, enjoying payasam — cardamom-flavored vermicelli pudding — and ladoos made of chickpea flour. Kola’s celebrations end with sparklers and fireworks, a favorite being “one that would explode fake money with Shilpa Shetty’s face on it,” referring to the ‘90s Bollywood icon, and notably rare representative of the southern states in Indian pop culture.
‘People really go all out’
For 22-year-old Philadelphian Trina Sanyal, college Diwali celebrations consisted of “frozen samosas and tea,” and more recently suffering wind and frost to light a COVID-19-safe diya with friends. At home, her Bengali family celebrates the Diwali-adjacent Durga Pujo. “People really go all out,” she says, for a weeklong celebration of music and dance performances, pujas, and the adornment of Bengali traditional clothing. Bengalis have taken to celebrating in various community centers across the state,” she says, her family’s own celebration held at a Ukrainian Church, filling it with colorful sarees, the sounds of ghungroo bells around dancers’ feet ringing as they step, and the smells of gingery eggplant curry or sweet offerings like traditional Bengali sondesh, milk curds tossed with sugar.
The celebrations of Rai Ramnarace, the 55-year-old founder of food security start-up Essential Foods Group, differ greatly. Part of a large Guyanese-Indian-American community, descendants of indentured servants in British Guiana, Ramnarace has been told his family celebrates “in a very old way.” “We cherished our traditions and never wanted to let the ties to our homeland die,” he says. This includes prayers and meditation, lighting diyas, and cleaning the house to be “spic and span.” Ramnarace and his family hand-deliver packages of food like pholourie, an Indo-Caribbean dish of split pea fritters, chow mein (introduced by Chinese indentured workers), and sweets like pera, gulgula or goja, milk fudge, banana fritters, and coconut turnovers to friends and family.
The Diwali table of Memphis-based physiatrist Sunita Jain has turnovers called ghugra, the fried dough stuffed with walnuts and raisins. Jain is a member of the Jain religion, whose practitioners celebrate Diwali for reasons different from Hindus, commemorating “the nirvan day of Mahavir,” the enlightenment of one of the 24 tirthankaras or deities of Jainism. Their traditions might include an early morning puja in the community followed by a Rajasthani lunch of dal bati, turmeric-colored dal served with unleavened rolls. The heavy lunch is followed by time at home for family celebrations and rest and an evening full of fireworks.
Accommodating old traditions in new ways
Growing up, my family celebrations pulled elements from my Punjabi mom and Kutchi dad, but more commonly centered on a neighbor’s Diwali party: a group arti, a song and offering of a flame to the deities, propped up by YouTube recordings, followed by plates piled with unfamiliar Maharashtrian flavors like tomato saar, a curry leaf-scented tomato soup, and shrikhand, sweet, strained yogurt with saffron. For the kids, there’d be intense Wii tennis tournaments in the basement, while upstairs, our parents could be heard laughing between rounds of poker.
Despite these rich, varied practices, the lack of America’s societal acknowledgment is felt, especially through the currency of time. Tradition takes a backseat to the pace of working life, with Jain noting how her traditions have had to change. On weekday Diwalis, the morning prayers are eliminated, the traditional dal bati lunch becomes dinner. The fireworks stopped because of pollution and noise. Jain and her family tried taking off work for Diwali, but that became more of a stressor. “Work just had to be made up,” she says.
Ramnarace and Sanyal agree that seeing Diwali become a holiday in large cities would be nice.
“I’d love a bigger culture of acceptance when it comes to taking time away from work and the general pace of American life for these traditions,” says Sanyal. Without proper time to let the holiday breathe, it is harder to share with future generations, and more secularly.
While there may not be a single dish that easily wraps a bow around the essence of Diwali, there is a common theme to celebrate: community. Kola suggests remembering the real meaning of the holiday: “There will always be a guiding light helping you make your way back [home].” For her — beyond the Shilpa Shetty cash-spewing machine, of course — Diwali was about hearing stories from her grandparents. Jain starts cooking days ahead with her mom or mother-in-law to send sweets-filled care packages to family across the country.
When I reflect on my own celebrations, those Wii-fueled parties were often the only social event I attended in a room filled with other brown people. This year, coming together amid community is especially valuable. “It’s all a testament to folks really trying to rally, especially in the last few years as traditions and celebrations have had to be compromised even more than they were before because of the pandemic,” says Sanyal.
If you want to give Diwali a nod this year, light a candle, clean your house, and share a sweet with friends. Most importantly, call your mom (or send her some nice decorative napkins).
Nani’s Gajar Ka Halwa
Gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa) is a dessert common in the northern farming state of Punjab. Imagine the best of carrot cake — carrots and warm spices — condensed into a thick, pudding-like consistency. Typically saved for special occasions, gajar ka halwa was a popular occurrence at my Nani’s Diwali table, made with loved ones while surrounded by gossiping and singing. Use the recipe as a guide, but there’s no need to be precise — like the best grandma recipes, it is a product of oral tradition.
4½ cups (packed) of grated carrots, around 4 large carrots
4 tablespoons ghee or 6 tablespoons butter
⅔ cup of white sugar
2 cups of milk
6 green cardamom pods, or ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ cup evaporated milk
Pinch of salt
Handful of slivered almonds, raisins, pistachios (optional)
Wash, peel, and grate your carrots.
Melt half of your ghee or butter over medium-high heat in a large saucepan until frothing. Add the grated carrots and sugar. Cook until they turn bright orange and sticky from the melting sugar (about 3 minutes).
Lower the heat slightly and add your milk.
Crush your cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle or another heavy object, and add to the milk. (If using ground cardamom, add to milk here.) You can remove the shells before serving, though regular recipients of home-cooked Indian food learn to eat around the seeds and sticks often involved.
Cook the mixture down at a gentle simmer until the milk has almost completely evaporated (around 30 minutes), stirring regularly and scraping down the sides.
Add the remaining ghee or butter and half of your evaporated milk and continue to cook down. At this point, the carrots should be bright and gem-like, the color of tobiko roe.
The mixture should come together like a loose dough and the bottom of the pan should be clean when all the liquid has completely evaporated. At this point, turn off the heat, add the remaining evaporated milk, a pinch of salt, and any optional nuts or dried fruit of your liking (almonds are Nani’s favorite). Stir well.
Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with additional nuts or raisins. Serve warm or room temperature.