Diwali, the five-day festival observed throughout India by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, holds a shared symbolism for all who celebrate: “That light overcomes darkness, good overcomes evil, and knowledge overcomes ignorance,” says Veda Sankaran, recipe developer and creator of Jalsa by Veda spice mixes. One of the several origin stories about Diwali is that it commemorates King Rama’s rescue of his kidnapped wife Sita, one of the major storylines in the world’s most ancient epic poem, the Ramayana. When Rama and Sita return home to live happily ever after, the citizens of their land welcome them by lighting tiny oil lamps all over the ancient city of Ayodhya.
The word Diwali is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word deepavali, which translates to “a cluster or line of lamps,” or diyas. Throughout the holiday, these clay oil lamps are still lit around the home.
Sankaran, who is from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India, emphasizes the diversity of celebrations across India depending on language, culture, and region. For example, “Most people know it as Diwali, but I grew up saying, ‘Happy Deepavali!’ she says. “Like most holidays around the world, it’s centered around family and food. New clothing is gifted, food is shared, and in the evening, firecrackers and sparklers are set off.”
Traditions focus on the preparing and sharing of sweets. In South India, “we usually start our meals with the dessert,” says Sankaran, which is why they’re featured here first. She also notes that Indian desserts are often time-consuming to prepare, and her time-saving approach is non-traditional––but just as delicious.
ONION BHAJI RECIPE
These popular deep-fried snacks are similar to veggie fritters or pakoras. Crunchy, salty, rich, and spiced, their chickpea-flour batter is spiked with ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder. Be sure to have a bright and balancing dipping sauce, like this mint-cilantro chutney.
2 medium onions, cut in half and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
2 tsp grated ginger
1 finely chopped green chili
3/4 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
3/4 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp cornstarch
¾ cup besan or chickpea flour
4-5 tbsp water as needed, to bring the batter together
Place the sliced onions in a medium-sized bowl. Add in the grated ginger and finely chopped green chili along with the cumin powder, Kashmiri chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric, and salt. Use a fork to stir and evenly coat the onions with the spices.
Next, add the baking soda, cornstarch, and chickpea flour. Stir to coat the onions and then slowly add 1 tablespoon of water at a time until a thick batter begins to form. Pour in only as much water as needed to bring the batter together.
Heat at least 3 inches of oil to about 350 degrees. Once the oil is hot enough, take a spoonful of the onions and place gently in the oil. You can put 3-4 in at a time as long as there is space between each bhaji.
The temperature of the oil is important to regulate. If the oil is too hot, the center won’t cook while the outside burns. Also, when you place more than one bhaji in the oil the temperature reduces, so you may have to turn up the heat temporarily to raise it; otherwise, it draws in too much oil and you will end up with oily bhaji.
Fry each batch of bhaji for a few minutes on each side, remove, and place on a wire rack to drain. Serve immediately with cilantro-mint chutney.
DAHI PAPDI CHAAT RECIPE
“Chaat is a very popular street food” that’s “tangy and sweet and spicy.” These snacks always include “something crunchy, something starchy, fresh toppings, and chutneys,” says Sankaran. This recipe starts with deep-fried pooris, a type of crunchy cracker. Next come the toppings: boiled potatoes, chaat masala-infused yogurt, red onion, cilantro, sev (small bits of crunchy chickpea-flour noodles), pomegranate seeds, tamarind-date chutney, and cilantro-mint chutney.
1 boiled potato, peeled and coarsely crushed
½ small red onion, finely chopped
Small handful cilantro, finely chopped
1 cup plain full-fat yogurt
Chaat masala to taste
Tamarind or tamarind date chutney
Prep all the ingredients: boil the potatoes, chop the onion and cilantro, prepare the pomegranate seeds, and stir together the yogurt and chaat masala.
Assemble the chaat by placing the papdis on a large plate. Place a little of the crushed potatoes on top. Next, spoon on the yogurt and then drizzle on the tamarind and cilantro-mint chutneys. Then top this by sprinkling on the sev, followed by the finely chopped red onion and cilantro. Finally top with the pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.
Note: The papdi, chaat masala, tamarind chutney, cilantro-mint chutney, and sev can all be purchased at your local Indian grocery store. The cilantro-mint chutney recipe for the onion bhaji can be used here if you want a homemade version. The chaat masala I used is from Spicewalla.
RECIPES AND STYLING BY VEDA SANKARAN / STORY BY NICOLE BARLEY / PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE BRYCE
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