Bursts of sparkle, startling bangs, vibrant rangolis, a game of cards, a roll of the dice, and the best of clothes — yes, Diwali is all that, but not just. Diwali is also piping hot gulab jamun stuffed with saffron and pistachio, spicy mathri and crunchy sev, mounds of motichoor waiting to be sculpted into those perfect orbs…. In other words, the festival of lights can also be an exhilarating flavour fest. And the finest Diwali delicacies are usually made right at home.
In Bengal, Diwali coincides with Kali Puja, and the bhog offered to the goddess is a treat you can’t miss. Usually there is spicy and slightly runny khichuri (khichdi) or typical Bengali mishti pulao chockfull with cashew nuts and raisins, accompanied by a host of scrumptious fries and delicious curries, and rounded off with creamy paayesh (rice or semolina pudding). The ritual sacrifice of a goat during Kali Puja is still prevalent in Bengal and, interestingly, the meat is prepared without onion or garlic since they’re considered non-vegetarian. As a result, the dish has a curious name – niramish (vegetarian) mangsho (meat).
In Orissa, traditional cottage cheese-based sweets like chhena pora and rasabali are Diwali favourites. Equally indispensable to the feast is the buddha chakuli for which the batter is made with ground black gram, cottage cheese, coconut, rice flour and jaggery, spiced with cardamom and ginger, and then fried in ghee, like pancakes.
In Maharashtra the most popular types of Diwali faral include — the shankarpali, prepared with deep fried diamond-cut fritters doused in sugar syrup; chirote, flaky and round, layered pastries dusted with powdered sugar; and anarsa, prepared with rice flour and jaggery fritters studded with poppy seeds, taking up to 10 days to make. And who could forget the half-moon shaped pastries with a thinly-fluted edge, stuffed with a spiced, desiccated coconut, poppy seeds, sugar and dried fruits? Yes, karanji is a must on Diwali and so are chakli, chivda and sev.
A close cousin of the karanji is Gujarat’s ghughra, which comes with either a sweet coconut filling or a savoury filling of spiced mashed potatoes and peas. Other Diwali specialities in Gujarat include cholafali — spicy, deep fried fingers made with a mix of different lentil flours — and sweet lapsi, broken wheat cooked in ghee with sugar and spices like cardamom.
Poha, or flattened rice, is the star of a traditional Diwali celebration in a typical Goan Hindu household. Locally known as fau, it is prepared in five different ways on Diwali. According to one legend, when Sri Krishna returned home victorious —having slayed demon Narkasur — he had been offered a meal comprising poha. This led to the custom most follow today.
So, the different varieties of poha today include — the piquant bataat fau, which is poha prepared with potatoes and a host of spices; kalayile fau, a sweet and spicy preparation with a fiery mix of spices and a hint of jaggery; doodhatlye fau, a delicate milk poha; rosathle fau, which is poha prepared in cardamom-infused coconut; and a simple sweet poha prepared with curd or buttermilk. Vatana usal, a spicy dried pea curry, also a definitive Goan Diwali dish, is served alongside.
Be it the irresistible badam puri, sweet puris made of flour and almond paste or the rich mawa kachori dunked in sugar syrup, the luxurious pista ke launji or the ghee-soaked besan ke laddu – Diwali is all about sweet opulence.
On the one hand there are famous Punjabi favourites like pinni, a winter treat loaded with dry fruits; patisa, flaky, cardamom-flavoured fudge; and gajrela, a runny carrot kheer loaded with slivered almonds. On the other, there are rare treats like singal from the Kumaon region, a deep fried, pinwheel-shaped sweet made from a semolina, curd and banana batter.
Mohanthal, saffron-tinged sweet gramflour fudge, and lavang lata, pastry pockets stuffed with khoya and anchored with a clove bud, are quintessential Diwali treats. Kusli, a variation of the gujiya, with a stuffing of semolina, desiccated coconut and dry fruits, is yet another festive favourite, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Perennial favourites like kaju barfi, kesari jalebis, balushahi, gujiya and churma laddu continue to enjoy attention.
Some of the top picks include a variety of murukku like thenkuzhal and mullu, crisp ribbon pakodas flavoured with a hint of asafoetida; kodubale, a moderately spiced, deep-fried snack made of rice and roasted gram flour; and spicy rice-and-lentil crackers called nippattu or thattai.
Have a sweet tooth? Indulge in a bowl full of luscious Kannad-style sweet pongal called huggi. Or chomp on a couple of obbattu, stuffed, sweet chapatti fried in pure ghee, another Diwali favourite in Karnataka. Of course, there is also the legendary Mysore Pak no celebration can be complete without.
Game for more? Try boorelu – a sweet coconut stuffing, sculpted into balls, dipped in a rice and lentil batter and deep fried – an Andhra specialty to die for. Other Diwali specialties include teepi gavvalu, deep-fried bites coated with crystalised sugar syrup, or roasted urad dal laddu called sunnundalu.
Speaking of laddus, classic rava (semolina) laddu, is a Diwali essential in Tamil Nadu. And you certainly can’t miss adhirasam, a kind of deep-fried, sweet, rice flour bread, either. But before you go on a bender, it is perhaps a good idea to make sure your stomach can handle the food deluge. In Tamil Nadu, one must consume the deepavali marundu lehiyam (literally, Diwali medicine), a concoction made of ingredients like carom seeds, poppy seeds, dry ginger, dry grapes, honey, jaggery, nuts, ghee and more, on Diwali. The lehiyum facilitates digestion! Smart move, eh?
This article was first published in 2014 and has been updated.