Defining Diwali

Defining Diwali

With the myriad of holidays coming up, Diwali is one of the most festive. It is the premier event for the Indian community to celebrate. I have been blessed to participate in some amazing Diwali parties, including many events that I planned while building my catering business in Hong Kong. Anyone who has participated in Diwali celebrations will have their own definition of what it means to them. Defining Diwali is not a simple matter, as it is as diverse as the Indian culture.

“Diwali”, or Deepavali in Sanskrit translates as “rows of lighted lamps”, otherwise known as a 5-Day Festival of Lights and many celebrate this as a new year, a new harvest – an occasion for giving new direction to their lives, connecting with others, and spreading joy through fellowship and acts of kindness. Celebrated by Indians across the world, this year Diwali falls on November 4th.

Traditionally, people light up oil lamps in their homes, they visit families and friends and enjoy special meals together dressed in their new clothes. There are firework displays, street dancing, prayer, and worship ceremonies with many offerings of sweets and treats.

Growing Up with Diwali

Many of us grew up with stories of how this day was celebrated each year with expectant gifts from parents of new toys, books, clothes, and shoes. The gift that brought the most cheer was the gift of money to the children who could keep this and do with as they pleased, not having to save it in the piggy bank!

The buildup and the five-day celebration of Diwali was and still is a big event. Homes are cleaned and swept prior to the celebrations beginning. New appliances are purchased and even the meals are served in new dishware. Basically, it is a time for renewal.

The meals are always festive and bountiful. Every family member gets an opportunity to enjoy their favorite meal especially with the inclusion of their favored desserts or sweets, known as Mithai/Barfi, Gulab Jamun, Kheer or Halwa. There are many variations. Large families tend to collaborate each year in the preparation of desserts so that they can all savor the huge recipes offered as they visit each other’s homes and businesses during the five days.

The very first sweet I learned to make at the age of sixteen, before I progressed to the more time-consuming, deep-fried delicacies, was pedas – a rich milky based sweet that is simple to make and touches the heart.

We had a large family clan in Hong Kong. So much so, that the moms collaborated in the planning of the menu for each family so there were never any duplicate recipes. This plan worked well with all the aunties, as they would have the opportunity to bring their best recipes to the feasting table each year. We ended up enjoying eight varieties of snacks and sweets each! My aim was always to convince my aunts into sharing their recipes with me, which they did with great delight.

Diwali instilled in me a sense of hospitality. As a young adult, I was delegated to welcome strangers and foreign visitors in my father’s shop during the celebrations. I would receive visitors by introducing them to the family, then by sharing the meaning of Diwali. I would serve the sweets and the savory snacks that were laid out, describing each dish to the best of my ability. As I matured I came to relish the opportunity to connect with new people and sharing our culture with them.

So, how do I define Diwali?  With such a rich history, Diwali means something different to each who celebrate it. It is a celebration of people. Diwali is all about expressions of affection and love – the lights, food and gifts are all on display as a show of genuine care for family, friends and guests – hospitality at the core.


This Diwali I want to bring something classic and something modern to your table. First, a recipe I learned during my teenage years, which is also very dear to me – pedas. This sweet delicacy has served many over the years and I hope it will be passed on through your own family as well.

The second, beetroot – a vegetable that is seldom used in Indian cuisine other than in pickles and salads. I have created a beetroot curry with coconut cream which elevates an underutilized food. This is an amazing dish, perfect for Diwali – the colors and vibrancy will blow you away!



1 cup milk powder

½ cup whole milk

4-5 saffron threads (soak these in the whole milk for at least 10 minutes)

¼ cup sugar

2 tsp clarified butter

3 pods of crushed cardamoms

Saffron threads

12 Pistachios


Combine milk powder and whole milk with the soaked saffron threads, until completely smooth and free of lumps, the saffron will change the color of the milk into a pale yellow.

Transfer the mixture into a non- stick pan and cook over low heat, keep stirring till it thickens, about 4 minutes. Add the sugar, the clarified butter, mix well and continue to stir over the low flame. The mixture will start to thicken further, about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat, sprinkle in the cardamoms inclusive of the shells. Turn the mixture over onto a flat surface and allow to cool down a bit.

Whilst the mixture is still slightly warm, portion it into 12 round balls, discard the cardamom shells. Rub the palms of your hand with some of the clarified butter and press down to flatten a little, making sure to even the round edges to a smooth, ridge-free shape. Place a pistachio in the center of each Peda for the final touch. I used to add silver leaf paper on each Peda, this is optional. They are usually slightly chewy when still warm and then tend to soften as they cool down further. Because it is a milk product, it is best to keep it covered and refrigerated.

Eat your Beets (Beetroot Curry with Coconut Cream)

Autumn is the perfect season to enjoy the natural sweet earthy flavor of beetroots. They are low in calories high in fiber packed with vitamins. Even the bright crimson, purple, violet and maroon hues of a red beetroot is a boost for our eyes. Topped with coconut cream, this recipe is a sheer crowd-pleaser. Here is my recipe with vivid colors, a hint of sweetness, an aroma of fragrant spices.


2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp vegetable oil

2 medium size onions, diced

1 tsp yellow mustard seeds, crushed

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tbsp cumin powder

1 fresh red chili, seeds removed, cut lengthwise

5 medium sized tomatoes, diced

1 tsp kosher salt

6 medium-size beetroots (3 red, 3 yellow/orange), thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed, leaves and stems removed, save leaves for later as a garnish

2 tbsp coconut cream (from a can, only the cream on top)

2 tbsp toasted halved pistachios

2 tbsp beetroot leaves, chiffonade


Place cleaned beetroots on a sheet of foil, season with salt, pepper and olive oil, wrap the foil around these in a tight package, place it on a baking sheet and roast in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 45-50 minutes or till tender when pierced with a fork. Put on gloves to prevent staining your hands, remove skins when beets are cooled slightly, cut them into small cubes, set aside.

Heat vegetable oil on medium flame in a deep pan, add onions to sauté for 6 mins or till soft and golden brown. Add mustard seeds, sauté for a minute, you may hear some popping if the seeds are still whole, stir for a minute, add the rest of the spices, toast for a minute, add the chili and the tomatoes, sauté for 5 minutes till the whole mixture comes together. Throw in the beets, stir, cover with a tight lid, and let simmer for a few minutes. The sauce should be thick, the beets amalgamated with the sauce. Turn off the flame. For service, place the cooked beets on a platter, top with coconut cream, garnish with chiffonade of beet leaves and pistachio nuts.

The sweetness of the beets, the warm pungent spices, the mild, rich coconut cream, the crunchy pistachios and finally the bright taste of the beetroot leaves all come together harmoniously. The colors are vibrant and inviting especially when served saffron rice pilau/pilaf. A bright warm meal that celebrates Diwali!

What are some of your favorite Diwali recipes?

Maje Karo = Bon Appetit!  

Happy Diwali!

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