Over the weekend, I celebrated Diwali with my family for the first time in almost 10 years.
While this year has taken so much from all of us, I realized that if my company hadn’t switched to a work-from-home model to embrace social distancing, I wouldn’t have been able to drive the 20 hours south from Minneapolis to Houston to celebrate my favorite holiday with them.
In a year that has challenged us in so many ways, I have learned just how important it is to find those moments of light and joy in the everyday. For me, spending the day decorating the house with rangolis and eating burfis before the evening pooja and diya lighting, will definitely be on my list of highlights from a year I was sure wouldn’t have any.
More importantly, it was a weekend to kick off the holiday season in a year where the usual traditions are going to look different for a lot of us.
It’s funny for me to look back, because unlike a lot of pieces of my identity that took time for me to fully embrace and be proud of, Diwali was always something I embraced fully and loved celebrating. Perhaps it has something to do with how during school show-and-tells, the comparison of Diwali as the desi version of Christmas/New Years meant that my friends thought I was so lucky to get two whole Christmases! Ah, the simple joys. And while we would celebrate with our family friends in the neighborhood growing up, all the Aunties bringing sabzis and treats to share potluck style, when I left for college the celebrations looked different. While I was involved with Indian student organizations while in school, the festival didn’t feel quite the same without my family. Diwali always fell a weekend or so before Thanksgiving week, so to go home so close to the long vacation when professors tried to fit in exams before Turkey week, just wasn’t feasible. And when I moved up to Minneapolis, I was even further away from the celebrations.
It was only last year that I tried really hard to be intentional about celebrating outside of just FaceTiming my parents to get a digital version of the puja we always do at home. I ordered mithai from the local sweet shop, attempted to make rangoli, and decorate my home with diyas lining the doorways. While I was still resigned to celebrating on my own, one of my best friends Kristin asked if I would want to celebrate with someone. I had never truly brought any of my friends, who are mostly white, into my Diwali celebrations. They would always know it was Diwali because I would mention it, but I had never brought the two worlds together. To have her offer and then show up with her husband Mark, gifts in tow, her own version of aloo tikis to share, and spending a few hours attempting to make rangolis on my kitchen island, is still to this day one of the kindest things anyone has done for me. It was a true reminder of why the holiday season is special: because it shows us that the most important thing is the people in our lives and a time to remember all that we have to be grateful for, no matter which holidays we celebrate.
To be able to spend this Diwali and holiday season with my family is something that I will always remember. That even in one of the darkest years, there is still space to find the light.
While Diwali does have similarities to our Western calendars’ last week of the year—lots of celebrations, indulging in sweets, gifting treats to near and dear friends and family, firecrackers, and celebration—Diwali is more than just another colorful festival.
I’ll save the story behind Diwali for another time—it’s a little lengthy to type out into one post and has different interpretations and traditions across India—the meanings I’m reminded of come down to the celebration of victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Especially in the context of this year, these reminders hit even closer to home.
For me, my extra holiday before the rest of the season has always gotten me into the holiday mindset a little early. I’m reminded that there is so much to be grateful for, and even though this season looks different and everyone is facing challenges, what we can control is how we react and how we move forward. Being together with my family for such an extended period of time reminds me of so many friends who can’t be with family this year because of mindful travel. Having the blessing we do have, I’m reminded that we can think of ways to give back to those without the same right now. I want to take the lesson of Diwali this year, to focus on light and knowledge, and use those reminders to share what I can and take care of those around me, even if they are a bit more distanced these days.
I’ll be spending the rest of the season trying different recipes with my mom—spending part of Diwali week with her in the kitchen learning to perfect paratha and make besan burfi was such a treat. Sure part of being in the kitchen together means wondering why the other person doesn’t follow the same methods and some sarcastic comments with an ‘I told you so’ thrown in every so often, it’s also the time when we laugh the most and have the most fun. While there is something to be said for making our own Diwali desserts, my family is also a HUGE fan of our local Houston Indian Sweet Shop. So for holidays like Diwali, we like to create a blend of homemade and shop-bought sweets for the perfect platter to sneak sweets from throughout the day. It’s even better through the week as we take a piece of mithai from the white cardboard shop box through the days after the celebration for a little after-dinner treat.
My Favorite Diwali Dessert Recipes
So, do you want to pull together some mithai or maybe add something extra special to your holiday cookie platter this year? Mithai’s and burfi’s are the perfect way to expand your dessert repertoire and add a special surprise to your doorstop cookie drop off boxes this year. Below is my personal recco for the perfect collection of desi sweets to pull together, some homemade, some tried and true recipes from my favorite desi foodies, and the selections to pick up from your Indian market or sweet shop.
- Gulab Jamun: How could I leave this one out? You can find my recipe here, and either roll in coconut or make a sweet saffron simple syrup to soak them in. It’s a classic and one of my favorite desserts that I have learned from my mom.
- Besan Burfi: Another favorite that we usually pick up from our sweet shop. It’s basically made with chickpea flour, ghee, and sugar syrup. Sometimes it’s topped with pistachios or almonds, but I’m a fan of the plain version. So good, so simple. It takes a bit of practice to nail the texture down, but it’s totally worth it – we riff off this recipe.
- Peanut Chikki: An Indian version of peanut brittle. One of my favorites, and perhaps there’s a recipe forthcoming from me soon! In other cases, most shelf options from your Indian grocery store are also delicious.
- Jalebi: One of my favorite sweets. I’ve never made this one before and we usually get a whole separate box of this from the sweet shop, but my Instagram friend Kankana just posted a recipe that I’m so excited to try.
- Kaju Katli: Okay, at this point I’m saying all of these are my favorite, but I mean it! Kaju Katlis are cashew, ghee, and sugar-based dessert that is so easy to make. I’ve made this a few different times over the years and it’s just so good, Priya Krishna just posted a recipe on Bon Appetit that is the essence of this perfect mithai.
- Namkeens: Not a sweet, but the perfect crunchy and salty bite to add some texture and different flavors to a platter. I actually added some of my favorite snack mix to this holiday popcorn post last year. If you wander over to your Indian grocery store, I recommend Khatta Meetha, Chaklis, and Bhujia (which Priya said she would eat over Doritos any day!)
- Chocolate Burfi: I’m apparently the only one in the family who likes this one, but who doesn’t love chocolate! We order this one from the sweet shop, but it’s made with the milk powder, condensed milk, and cocoa, giving it a fudge-like texture that is just delicious.
Happy kickoff to the holiday season, friends! Here’s your reminder to take note of what we have to be grateful for this year and to take care of each other.