Borough Market chef Rachel Kelly, who spent her childhood in Asia, shares her memories of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light
Words: Rachel Kelly
Diwali is the festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance. It brings light to the darkness. This joyous and colourful festival is celebrated not only by millions of Hindus around the world, but also by followers of Sikhism and Jainism, honouring Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
This five-day festival is celebrated in much the same way around the world. Houses are spring-cleaned and decorated with rangoli, which are colourful, patterned floor decorations, as well as strings of lights, lanterns, lamps and candles. It is a chance for people to dress up, wearing their best or newest clothes. Prayers are offered to Lakshmi and homes are thrown open to family and friends, exchanging gifts and celebrating with specially prepared food.
However, there are a few regional differences in the foods served depending on where in the Indian subcontinent or Asia (including Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) you are celebrating and the seasonal ingredients available. While it may not be an official holiday, Diwali is celebrated in other countries with large Hindu communities including the UK, Australia and the United States.
Specialist sweet shops
One of the most important types of food is ‘mithai’, a type of south Asian confectionary. There are many specialist sweet shops across Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and the queues outside the shops are often long as people stock up on treats to serve or bring as gifts during the Diwali celebrations.
Many of these sweets are easily made at home—although the process can be time-consuming. For days before the celebrations begin, keen cooks are busy making a whole array of sweets which may contain a quite substantial amount of sugar, ghee, milk, or nuts, fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, flower essences (such as orange blossom water) and spices (such as cardamom). Some may be uncooked, others fried or even frozen, such as kulfi, a type of ice cream.
Sweets include things like gajrela (or halwa), a slow-cooked sweetened vegetable pudding; laddoos which are chickpea flour balls soaked in a sticky syrup; barfi made with sweetened milk, ground nuts and often decorated with edible gold or silver leaf; and jalebi, a sour batter which is left to ferment before deep-frying.
It is no wonder that often several generations within a family will get together to make these celebratory sweets, prepare food, and ensure that firstly specially prepared food (prasad) is offered up to the deities, but that there is also a constant stream of food to satisfy all the guests who visit.
But Diwali is not just about sweet treats and offerings—savoury snacks and nibbles are also served. They include the sort of popular snacks sold by street food vendors, such as vegetable pakoras and bhajis coated in a spiced batter, spiced crushed lentil cakes known as vadai, and pakoda, which are thin ribbons of dough which are deep fried and salted.
Family favourites are the order of the day, including curries or a lavish biryani, and also dishes that reflect the best available seasonal ingredients, enriched with spices and studded with dried fruits and nuts.
Perfect savoury party snack
I would like to share with you two more dishes I will be making this year to celebrate, malai kofta and the perfect savoury party snack, an onion pakora—a crisp-coated fritter that everyone can enjoy.
Whether it is sweet or savoury, friends or family, Diwali is a vibrant and delightful festival that brings people together through the joy of shared food. I have put together a few recipes that might inspire you to join in the celebrations and I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do.