Diwali, the five-day festival observed throughout India by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, holds a shared symbolism for all who celebrate: “That light overcomes darkness, good overcomes evil, and knowledge overcomes ignorance,” says Veda Sankaran, recipe developer and creator of Jalsa by Veda spice mixes. One of the several origin stories about Diwali is that it commemorates King Rama’s rescue of his kidnapped wife Sita, one of the major storylines in the world’s most ancient epic poem, the Ramayana. When Rama and Sita return home to live happily ever after, the citizens of their land welcome them by lighting tiny oil lamps all over the ancient city of Ayodhya.
The word Diwali is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word deepavali, which translates to “a cluster or line of lamps,” or diyas. Throughout the holiday, these clay oil lamps are still lit around the home.
Sankaran, who is from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India, emphasizes the diversity of celebrations across India depending on language, culture, and region. For example, “Most people know it as Diwali, but I grew up saying, ‘Happy Deepavali!’ she says. “Like most holidays around the world, it’s centered around family and food. New clothing is gifted, food is shared, and in the evening, firecrackers and sparklers are set off.”
Traditions focus on the preparing and sharing of sweets. In South India, “we usually start our meals with the dessert,” says Sankaran, which is why they’re featured here first. She also notes that Indian desserts are often time-consuming to prepare, and her time-saving approach is non-traditional––but just as delicious.
MANGO RASMALAI RECIPE
A “milky, creamy, sweet” North-Indian specialty featuring tender bites of cheese curds (Sankaran’s version uses baked ricotta) nestled into a sweet-cream sauce blended with mango puree, cardamom, and saffron. Slivered almonds and rose petal garnishes complete the treat.
Neutral oil for greasing muffin tins
2 lb whole milk ricotta cheese, drained
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp crushed cardamom seeds, divided (½ for cheese, ½ for sauce)
1 cup whole milk
2 cups half and half
½ cup sugar
⅓ of a large can mango puree
Sliced almonds to garnish
Dried edible rose petals for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a shallow muffin tin with neutral oil.
2. Mix together the ricotta cheese, sugar, and cardamom. Scoop spoonfuls into the muffin tins, filling it not quite half way. Bake for 25-27 minutes. Take it out of the oven and let it cool slightly. Then, loosen edges with a butter knife and gently lift each piece out and place in a flat container.
3. While the cheese is baking, heat a heavy-bottomed pan and add the milk, half and half, sugar, and cardamom. Stir until the sugar begins to dissolve and the milk begins to slow-boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Take the milk off the heat and once it’s cooled slightly, spoon in the mango puree a little at a time. Do not add the mango puree all at once as that will make the milk curdle. If by chance it does curdle a little, it will still taste good, it’s more for appearance’s sake that you want to be careful.
5. Then pour the mango malai over the baked cheese. Cover and place in the refrigerator and let the flavors soak into the cheese. Bring the dessert to room temperature and garnish with the sliced almonds and rose petals before serving.
PISTACHIO BURFI RECIPE
Many varieties of this fudge-like confection are prepared throughout India, from coconut to cashew. For a quick hack, Sankaran uses pistachio butter rather than ground nuts, mixed with milk powder and sugar syrup. Rolled then pressed into a pan, it is traditionally served cut into diamonds and topped with edible silver and gold foil.
1 tbsp ghee + enough to grease your plate
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
6 oz pistachio butter
1/3 cup milk powder
1/2 tsp crushed cardamom powder
Edible gold or silver foil
1. First, use a little ghee to grease a flat plate or tray and set aside.
2. Next, heat a nonstick skillet on medium heat. Combine the water and sugar in the pan, stirring to dissolve. Continue heating the sugar water and stirring until the syrup becomes tacky and reaches a one-string consistency.
3. At that stage, lower the heat and stir in the pistachio butter quickly followed by the milk powder and cardamom powder. Place in the ghee and stir to combine everything; it will form a ball which you will quickly have to place on your greased plate.
4. Use the back of your spoon to flatten onto the plate. Work quickly as it will harden as it cools. Use your hands to press after you initially flatten with the spoon. Be careful as it will be hot. Once it is an even ¼-inch thick, let it cool and set for 2 hours.
5. Use a sharp knife and grease the blade with ghee before carefully slicing into diamond shapes, greasing your blade between each cut. Decorate with gold or silver foil and serve.
CARROT HALWA RECIPE
Soft and pudding-like, this halwa features carrots slow-cooked in luscious, sweetened milk. A scrumptious topping of golden raisins, cashews, and pistachios sautéed in ghee adds a textural element.
1 tbsp ghee + 1 tbsp ghee
8 slender carrots, peeled and grated (3 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup condensed milk
8-10 cardamom pods, remove outer husk and crush the seeds into a powder
1 tsp ghee
¼ cup cashews
⅛ cup pistachios
⅛ cup of golden raisins
1. Heat a pan. Add 1 tablespoon of ghee. Place in the grated carrots and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring often.
2. Then pour in the whipping cream and water. Stir and bring to a boil.
3. Next, lower heat and simmer for an additional 5 minutes or until carrots become tender and cream evaporates.
4. At this point add the condensed milk. Cook, stirring occasionally until the condensed milk becomes incorporated and evaporates.
5. Place in 1 tablespoon ghee and cardamom powder and stir. Cook stirring often until the color of the carrots begins to change and darken. This may take up to 25 minutes. Stay near the stove and monitor so it doesn’t burn.
6. Once the carrots have softened and darkened in color, remove from the heat and set aside.
7. Warm a teaspoon of ghee and add cashews and pistachios. Lightly toast the nuts before adding in the raisins. After a few seconds place this garnish on top of the carrot halwa and serve warm.
RECIPES AND STYLING BY VEDA SANKARAN / STORY BY NICOLE BARLEY / PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE BRYCE
Try more of Veda’s delicious Diwali dishes:
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