Indian Chefs Share Their Favorite Diwali Snacks and Traditions
Make masala pinwheels or cheese gujiya to celebrate the Hindu festival.
There is one thing about Diwali that I love the most—it’s literally “lit.” As a celebration centered around lighting oil lamps, Diwali is the biggest of the Hindu festivals in the country and for Indians abroad. While culture and cuisine vary, Diwali is that one thing that is celebrated unanimously throughout India (closely followed by cricket).
Coming from the Sanskrit word deepavali, Diwali translates to a “row of lamps,” which is what you will see sparkling outside Indian homes, on window panes, almost like the star of Bethlehem that is so central to decorating a Christmas tree. A little history says the festival marks the return of Lord Rama from a 14-year exile to his homeland in Ayodhya (North India), where the villagers lit up the whole town in his honor.
Today, the holiday means different things to different communities, but vibrant foods, a play of color, mithais, and firecrackers remain constant (although the noisy ones have been replaced by quiet sparklers).
“As an optimist, I love that Diwali is about celebrating joy and light,” says Aishwarya Iyer, the founder of Brightland, an LA-based food label. Iyer was born in Tamil Nadu, but has been living in the U.S. for the past 35 years. It is traditional for her and her husband to cook Indian cuisine every Diwali. “It’s a crispy dosa for breakfast, sambar-rice for lunch, and paneer paratha for dinner. I have a major sweet tooth, so I always reminisce about the plethora of sweets that my mom would make like jalebi [flour-based sweet] and barfi [milk squares].”
For chef, cookbook author, TV personality and restaurateur Maneet Chauhan, “the fact that we slow down and celebrate the festival as a family is my favorite part,” she shares. A North Indian sweet called gulab jamun features on Iyer and Chauhan’s menus (though both belong to very diverse parts of the country). It means dried whole milk rolled into balls and deep-fried in clarified butter, finished in sugar syrup. Iyer likes it in the most bare form, while Chauhan turns it into a decadent cheesecake.
“It’s a crispy dosa for breakfast, sambar-rice for lunch, and paneer paratha for dinner.”
Dessert is also front-of-mind for Pooja Bavishi, the founder of the Malai ice cream brand. “My favorite Diwali memory is making ghughra with my mom, aunts and grandmother,” she says. Ghughra is an empanada-lookalike filled with milk powder, clarified butter, sugar, nuts, and cardamom. “Our family would sit around the table in an assembly line, with my mom and aunts rolling out the circles, and my grandmother and me stuffing and folding them before frying them golden brown.”
Bavishi is on-brand when it comes to her Diwali table. You’ll find ice cream scoops that have hints not of chocolate, vanilla or bubble gum, but Indian sweets like gajar ka halwa (grated carrot pudding), shrikhand (sweetened hung curd), and the aforementioned ghughra. Her family has a special menu for each day of the five-day long festival. Gali rotli (sweet bread) for Dhanteras, the first day. They also eat kheer (milk and rice pudding) and vada (fritters) on another, lapsi (wheat mix) for the main day of Diwali, and shrikhand and puri (fried bread) on the Hindu New Year.
While sweets are central to all their homes, Chauhan—who has written a cookbook called Chaat, dedicated to Indian snacks—also does dahi bhalla, yogurt-doused lentil fritters, and deep-fried kale chaat, subbing out the traditional spinach. And “there’s also tandoori quail biryani, pumpkin-pomegranate raita, cottage cheese in a cashew sauce, fish roast, goat curry served with scented-saffron rice.” she says.
The day is also full of rituals. Iyer’s house plays Carnatic music because “it reflects on the kind of Diwali I have grown up experiencing,” she says. Chauhan and Bavishi decorate their homes with rangolis, or floral or geometric designs made using colored powders as a gesture to welcome in guests.
“We will also don new clothes which is a very Diwali thing to do,” Iyer adds. “I especially love the Indian designer Anita Dongre.” It is also tradition to play several card games on Diwali night, so when you think about snacking, easy finger foods, are key. Because—when it comes to Diwali—food, fun, and fashion, all go hand-in-hand.
Masala Cheese Gujiya Recipe
- 50 grams cheddar cheese
- 30 grams cheese curds or cottage cheese
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ Tablespoon onion, chopped
- ½ teaspoon green chilli, chopped
- ½ teaspoon cumin seed
- 10 milliliters oil
- 100 grams refined flour
- 30 milliliters clarified butter
- ½ teaspoon carom seeds
- Water to knead
- Salt to taste
1. In a saucepan, add oil and crackle cumin seeds and allow it to crackle. Add the onion, green chilli and sauté for 30 seconds.
2. Add the cottage cheese and cheese to it and stir well. Take off the flame and allow it to cool.
3. In a bowl, add refined flour, clarified butter, a pinch of salt and carom seeds. Knead it to a soft dough and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
4. Portion the dough into 10-gram balls. Using a rolling pin, flatten the portioned dough into thin circles. You can also use circular cookie cutters.
5. Enclose the filling inside the sheets, and fold it into half, like a semi-circle. Pinch the ends like an empanada and deep-fry until golden brown.
Pav-Chenna and Pav Bhaji Masala Pinwheels Recipe
- 2 Tablespoons oil
- 1 Tablespoon cumin seed
- ½ Tablespoon garlic, chopped
- ½ Tablespoon ginger, chopped
- ½ Tablespoon green chilli, chopped
- ½ small red onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon red chilli powder
- 3 Tablespoons pav bhaji masala
- 300 grams boiled potato, mashed
- 100 grams carrots, finely chopped
- 100 grams French beans, finely chopped
- 100 grams cauliflower, finely chopped
- 1 Tablespoon coriander leaves, finely chopped
- 1 Tablespoon onions, finely chopped
- 1 Tablespoon tomato, finely chopped
- 1 cup water
- Salt to taste
- 4 slices of white bread
- 50 grams of cheese curds or cottage cheese
- 10 grams chilli sauce
1. In a pan, heat oil, add cumin seeds and once they begin to crackle, add garlic, ginger and green chilli. Sauté for a minute and add the red onion, cook for another minute.
2. Add the rest of the vegetables and sauté well, add pav bhaji masala and sauté the mixture for two minutes further and add potato and water to cook the bhaji.
3. Season and lower the heat and cook the mixture until all the moisture has evaporated. This should take about 11-12 minutes.
4. To make the pinwheels, roll the bread slices thin and spread chilli sauce on it, place a spoonful of cheese curds over this and roll it into a roulade. Chill this in the refrigerator for two hour.
5. Once done, pan-sear on a heavy-bottom pan with butter. Once it is golden (about 5-6 minutes), slice the roulade and serve it with a topping of the bhaji, onions, tomato and coriander for garnish.
Anjeer Dahi Kabab with Tomato Kut Recipe
- 2 Tablespoons oil
- 200 grams hung curd
- 100 grams Indian cottage cheese, mashed
- ½ Tablespoon green chilli, finely chopped
- ½ Tablespoon fresh coriander stems, finely chopped
- ½ Tablespoon cardamom powder
- 4 dried figs finely chopped
- 1 Tablespoon honey
- ½ Tablespoon ginger, chopped
- ¼ teaspoon red chilli powder
- 100 grams semolina
- 2 tomatoes, blanched)
- ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
- Oil for frying
- Salt to taste
1. In a bowl, mix hung curd with cottage cheese, coriander stems, cardamom powder and green chillies. Season with salt and roll it into flat round patties.
2. Press chopped figs in the center of this and roll it into a ball. Pat it flat and coat it with semolina. Deep fry in hot oil until crispy and keep aside.
3. Peel off the skin of the tomatoes and grind them coarsely. In a pan, heat oil, add fennel seeds, ginger, green chillies, red chilli powder and allow it to crackle. Add the tomato puree and finish off with honey.
4. Season the tomato kut with salt and serve with kebabs.