Diwali - The Festival of Lights

November 04, 2010 2 Comments

Growing up Indian-American outside of Philadelphia, we celebrated  ---- ummmmm ---- Christmas. Every December 25th, my mom would make a game of the presents, hiding them all through the house so that my brother and I could happen upon them while squealing with anticipation and excitement. One was behind the sofa, another under a table...you get the idea. We loved it but I realize now that it was assimilation at its very best. We were relatively new to this country (I was three when we came), and my parents were doing their best to make sure we fit in socially and culturally. Being a parent now and realizing how crazy my days can get, I truly thank them for the efforts. At the time, between navigating a new culture and putting food on the table celebrating anything most likely would have been the least of their worries.

One November, though, we visited India. My eyes were opened to Diwali - the Hindu New Year. What I remember best is the buzz - coming from the bustling marketplace (my cousins Papla and Litoo took me in a rickshaw) and the feelings of anticipation. We were going to get fireworks, which are a tradition in India during Diwali. The ones people buy in the markets are not just the wimpy ones we resort to here, but intricate ones that do things that you'd never imagine. As I gazed at the hundreds of different options before me in the market stall, I picked one that the vendor told me was going to be a crowd pleaser. "It's going to blast into a parachute!" I was assured.

Sure enough, that night in my massi's yard in Bhatinda it did. We had all gathered to set off our loot. Mine - the best - was saved for last. At first it kind of sputtered as we scrambled to get out of the way...then it started to catch fire and make whizzing noises. Before I knew it, it was flying through the air and the parachute - my god there was one after all - blast open into a large, dark mushroom in the sky. It hovered and then it started to sail...away from us! The wind picked up and my parachute that I waited for all day long for was gliding to the neighbors' yards. We ran into as many as we could find, but we never found it. I'll never forget the disappointment - nor will I forget the thrill of celebrating an occasion that means so much to my own culture and heritage.

Call it Diwali....Divali....Deepavali...it all essentially means festival of lights. Deep is the Sanskrit word for light and avali means lined up...conjuring the perfect image of row upon row of colorful tea lights small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. This 5-day festival is the new year for Hindus and is based on a lunar calendar. The exact day differs every year and this year it falls on Friday, November 5. The holiday is also celebrated and revered by other religious groups as well as the Sikh and Jain communities.

Neha and Aria's special Diwali Thalis

For many who celebrate Diwali, this is the beginning of the new year. For many business families old records and books are closed and new ones are opened. Here's a 2009 piece that I wrote for the Wall Street Journal: "During Hindu Festival, Prayers for Financial Blessings."

For others it is a process of leaving darkness (ignorance) behind and moving to light (enlightenment). It is also a holiday that celebrates the conquering of good over evil. As the story goes...the revered Lord Rama returned with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman from a 14-year exile in the forest to his rightful kingdom of Ayodhya after putting the Evil Ravana to rest. Goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of material wealth and good fortune) is also revered on this day for her ability to bring material wealth to your home.

Regardless for your reasons to celebrate, Diwali for many is a time to regroup and get rid of the old. We clean our houses (does half count?)...we visit the temple...we do puja (prayers) with our family...we exchange gifts and blessings in the form of sweets. And...my favorite part of the holiday...we sometimes invest in a piece of gold jewelery. Many people play cards and stay up late with friends and family celebrating. Usually no meat is served and it's generally a very festive time of the year. Food is key!indian recipe: kali maa, healthy Indian recipe

There's no set menu for Diwali dinner, but many cook Kali Maa...or black lentils, a festive dish that often takes hours of cooking and stirring on the stovetop to prep. It's a dish that's actually perfect for the slow cooker and is included in my new book, The Indian Slow Cooker. Here's the recipe for you to enjoy and conjour up as you celebrate Diwali with your family and friends.

Black Lentils

Kaali dal, sabut urad, whole black gram, maa, whole matpe beans: Slow cooker size: 5-quart, Cooking time: 8 hours on high, Yield:  14 cups (3.31 L)

This is a staple dish in North India, where it is known as the queen of all dals. It is also referred to as maa di dal. Translated literally this means “Mother’s lentils,” which pretty much says it all in terms of how Punjabis view this dish. When cooked over a slow fire, the dish is incredibly rich and hearty. Most North Indian restaurants turn it into dal makhani by adding butter or cream.

Because this is a tougher lentil than most, it usually takes longer to cook on the stovetop. It’s often cooked over the lowest of flames in a heavy pot overnight, which is why it’s so helpful to have a slow cooker to do all the legwork for you. Cooking this dish slowly and for a longer period of time breaks the lentils down to a point where you may not even need to add cream and butter. I never do. But, if you prefer it richer, by all means add it in! The mustard oil is optional, but my nani (maternal grandmother) always added it to help the lentils break open and infuse them with flavor.

3 cups (603 g) whole, dried black lentils with skin, cleaned and washed thoroughly
1 medium yellow or red onion, peeled and quartered
1 (2-inch [5 cm]) piece ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 –6 Thai, serrano, or cayenne chilies, stems removed, finely chopped
2 bunches fresh cilantro, washed and chopped (about 2 cups [473 mL]), divided
1 tablespoon (15 mL) ground cumin seed
1 tablespoon (15 mL) ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon (15 mL) garam masala
1 heaping tablespoon (15 mL) salt
1 teaspoon (5 mL) turmeric powder
1 teaspoon–1 tablespoon (5–15 mL) red chili powder
12 cups (2.84 L) water
1 teaspoon (5 mL) mustard oil (optional)
1/2 cup (118 mL) heavy whipping cream or plain yogurt (optional)
1 pat butter for garnish (optional)
Chopped onions, for garnish
Chopped tomatoes, for garnish

1. Put the black lentils in the slow cooker.

2. In a food processor, grind the onion, ginger, garlic, green chilies, and 1 cup (201g) of the cilantro. Add this mixture to the lentils along with the cumin, coriander, garam masala, salt, turmeric, red chili powder, and water.

3. Cook on high for four hours. Add the mustard oil, if desired. 4. Cook for another 4 hours. Mix in the remaining cilantro and add the cream or yogurt, if you wish. Garnish with a pat of butter and chopped onions and tomatoes. Serve with basmati or brown rice or with naan or roti, an onion salad, and yogurt.

Do we still celebrate Christmas? Absolutely. In our house we firmly believe in respecting all beliefs and religions. But, we place emphasis on celebrating and understanding our own first and foremost. And that's a lesson that I hope my girls will never forget, along with our continued tradition of seeking out presents under the furniture!


What are your Diwali stories? I would love to hear them.

2 Responses

Michaela @ Fine Cooking
Michaela @ Fine Cooking

November 04, 2010

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Diwali! Thanks for sending this, I’ve always wanted to know more about this festival.
Looking forward to reading more,
Fine Cooking

Christina Carabini
Christina Carabini

June 20, 2011

..Lentils with cheese and tomatoes and carrots and peppers and celery. Served on top of rice pilaf with sour cream plain yogurt depending on the family member – very satisfying.

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