For Princy Lalawat, Diwali was all about her grandmother’s thepliya. A sweet Rajasthani version of the Gujarati thepla,the soft flatbread, filled with jaggery and a hint of cardamom, was like a “firework of flavours in the mouth”.
Every year, Lalawat, her sister and parents would spend a week in their ancestral house in Mhow, 25km from their Indore home, to celebrate the festival of lights with the extended family. While the elders would spend their mornings making traditional items like thepliyas, mawa-filled round gujiyas and besan chakkis, the children of the house would be tasked with cleaning fans, making rangoli and sewing garlands of marigold. “In the middle of all that work, we would make secret plans on how to steal the food. My eyes were always on thepliya. Dadi used to keep everything locked inside a small closet so that we don’t touch it before the Diwali puja,” laughs Lalawat, 25, a data analyst at a Hyderabad IT firm who has been working from home for months. They never succeeded.
This year, their annual trip had to be cancelled owing to covid-19. “It wasn’t the same anyway after I lost my grandparents. But this Diwali I have decided to make her thepliya.” Cooking was “an unnecessary chore” for Lalawat till the lockdown. She preferred Hyderabad’s outside food and “relied on quick meals like Maggi”. “But after March, I really entered the kitchen,” says Lalawat, who hopes to “make dadi proud and relive childhood memories” by making thepliya.
For many, cooking became a soothing, creative outlet during the lockdown. From making sourdough bread and Instagramming it, to attempting healthy versions of samosas, pizzas, cakes and halwas, people tried every recipe in the book, trying not to overthink the devastation being wrought by an invisible virus. In the process, they discovered a love and appreciation for cooking that even inspired some to return to their roots and see traditional foods in a way they had been too busy to do earlier. Avoiding outside food and taking that interest a step further, some lockdown cooks are marking Diwali by making foods their mothers and grandmothers used to, to celebrate their traditions, childhoods, and relive memories.
Sirattiya Bora, for instance, is making kolar bora at home for the first time. The Bengali banana fritters, part of the pujo thali, is her son and illustrator husband’s favourite delicacy during the festive season. “We are sticking to everything home-made this year,” says Thailand-born Bora, who made India home after her marriage 15 years ago. She works in the hospitality sector in Gurugram, Haryana, and started a home-food business, Aroi@4th Floor, in March.
Bora, 44, considers the lockdown a blessing in disguise, for the work-from-home schedule allowed her to hone her cooking skills. “I always enjoyed cooking, especially since we are all foodies. But the lockdown pushed me to try new things. I also have a Bengali sous chef and food taster (her husband) at home who really knows food,” she says with a wide smile.
Besides the fritters, Bora is also making cream-filled Thai eclairs, a cookie-shaped distant cousin of the more familiar eclair, one she used to have with friends daily after school in Huai Phueng district. “That’s one thing I missed the most here. After lockdown, we bought an oven and I tried it for the first time. It almost tasted the same. On Diwali, I hope it tastes the exact same so I can go back in time.”
Some 2,000km away in Bengaluru, Hitesh Sharma is hoping to achieve the same result with his third attempt at laapsee, a “glorified version of dalia", for Diwali. “I started helping more in the kitchen after the lockdown, and most often made simple things like dalia,” says Sharma, a strategic adviser for social enterprises, who calls Rajasthan’s Pali home. One day, his two children asked him to make dalia differently. “That’s when I thought of laapsee. It’s so strange; all these years, in every Rajasthani celebration, we have had it, and I didn’t notice it’s actually a richer version of dalia.”
Laapsee, Sharma’s grandmother told him once, is a story of resilience. “We belong to a farmer community. My dadi used to say that after selling the first-grade grain in the market and to the king, farmers would be left with only the low-quality wheat. So when Diwali would come, they would mix it with gur (jaggery) and make it special. I think that’s what this pandemic has taught us—to make the best of what we have (rather) than to look outside,” he explains. “Now I just hope my third laapsee tastes the way my grandmom’s used to.”
On the other side of the globe, Devaki Kulkarni is praying for similar results with anarsa, a sweet poori prepared with fermented rice and poppy seeds. “In a Marathi household, Diwali is incomplete without kadboli (a savoury snack made with chickpea, urad, moong and rice flour), chivda (a flaked rice-based namkeen) and anarsa. Kadboli and chivda are still easier to make but grandma’s anarsa is tough,” she says on a WhatsApp call from Redmond, US. “But I will try it, just so that I can travel home, at least in my mind.”
Lalawat is also hoping her thepliya tastes like her dadi’s. “It can never be the same, I know. After puja, when dadi used to offer food, I would pick up all the thepliyas on the plate. I just hope my family finds the same joy in it.”
Hitesh Sharma's recipe of lapsee
250g broken wheat
3 cups water
For the garnish
5-6 pieces each almonds and cashew nuts
1 tbsp coconut, grated
5-6 cardamom pieces
1 pinch saffron
Melt ghee in a kadhai (wok) or any other heavy-bottomed ironware. Add broken wheat and roast it for 10-12 minutes on a slow flame. When it turns golden brown, add water and cover with a lid. Cook for 10 minutes. In a separate pan, prepare jaggery syrup by boiling a cup of water with jaggery for four-five minutes. Once the water in the broken wheat and ghee mixture is soaked completely, add the jaggery syrup into the kadhai, mix and cook together for 10 minutes on a slow flame covered with a lid. Garnish with nuts, dried coconut, crushed cardamom and sprinkle saffron. Laapsee is ready.
—By Hitesh Sharma