Uttar Pradesh’s Kayastha families believe goddess Lakshmi resides in suran, or the elephant foot yam. The tuber is a symbol of indestructible prosperity, one which rejuvenates itself—once harvested, it grows again from the leftover corms in the ground. So a Diwali dinner in a Kayastha household is usually incomplete without a suran ki sabzi, or a suran kabab.
“This is an ugly-looking tuber (actually corm) that doesn’t look very appealing on supermarket shelves or even at the neighbourhood subziwala, but if you have had a good curry cooked with it, you would hunt this vegetable like crazy,” writes author Sangeeta Khanna in her popular blog, Banaras Ka Khana, about the tradition of eating suran on Diwali. She also cooks it as a chokha or a shami.
Not everything about Diwali is saccharine sweet. Apart from the delicate pinni, nevri, laddoos and moti pak, there are strong savoury traditions too. Some are specific to a community, others are personal to families. In Chef Manish Mehrotra’s family, for instance, it is customary to make cauliflower tahiri (a one-pot rice and vegetable dish) dinner on Diwali. For years, the lunch table would be laden with festive ghar ka khana (home food), featuring delicacies such as boiled singhara, or water chestnut chaat, which could be shared by all. “By the evening, my mother and aunts would be so tired. They would want to meet people and enjoy the festivities, so no one would bother with an elaborate dinner. So a simple gobhi tahiri was made,” says Mehrotra, the corporate chef of Indian Accent, New Delhi and New York.
Chaats and samosas are a festive staple in most families. And Satbir Bakshi’s is no different. Yam takes the form of a galouti on his table. Since most families follow a vegetarian diet till the Lakshmi puja, he does versions of a vegetarian galouti to create a faux meat dish. As executive chef, The Oberoi Mumbai, he does beetroot and mushroom versions at his restaurants too during the festival. “The day after the puja, keema samosas are a must at home. My father loves them. We also do savoury versions of the gujiya called karanjis, with green peas and coconuts,” he says. He replicates the concept at the hotel with goat cheese and walnut karanjis.
The one savoury thread that runs through community fare across the country is homemade naashta, such as murukku and a “mixture” of roasted lentils and dry fruits, to be served to guests. Even today, most people prefer making at least one such snack at home to recreate the feeling of a time when families in the neighbourhood would come together to make these.
In Maharashtra, this takes the form of faral, which includes pairings of sweet and savoury, such as laddoo with chivda, chakli with shankarpali. “After eating anything sweet, we immediately switch to a savoury treat,” says Anjali Koli, writer and home chef, who has a blog, AnnaParabrahma, on Koli cuisine. Some of the other popular snacks include kadbole, khari puri, bhadang and tikhat shev. “The Maharashtrian faral follows a belief that just as in life, a balance of both sweet and savoury should be present in food as well,” she says.
In Gujarat, famous for its farsaan, Diwali is the time to whip up unique snacks in the form of paper-thin mathiyas. Chef Chiquita Gulati of Delhi’s Spice Market, which showcases street food, says her family in Gujarat makes two kinds of mathiyas. One is completely white—fried, never roasted. “The other one is red, made with moong dal, which is like a small masala poori,” she says.
Drawing on her culinary heritage, she does a special snack for Diwali at the restaurant called kaju karela mix, with crispy, crunchy strips of karela (bitter gourd) tossed with a spice mix and cashews. Yet another popular dish in Gujarat on Diwali is the chorafali, which brings together crisp textures of lentil strips with a tart and spicy seasoning.
Mixtures are a must-have in parts of Tamil Nadu as well, with various versions using millets and peanuts. “On the Thanjavur side, people make other snacks as well, such as the peralam vada, cooked with a cashew-rice batter,” says Rakesh Raghunathan, an heirloom food curator, a TV show host and co-founder of the food and travel firm Puliyogare Travels. The Diwali breakfast simply must include vellai appam, a crisp and savoury deep-fried delicacy made with rice and urad dal batter, soaked, ground and fermented. “Some families also make a savoury pongal called ven pongal. In Tamil Nadu, the other popular snack is a ribbon pakoda,” he adds.
Since Diwali also marks the onset of winter, the market is full of greens and leafy vegetables. This new produce is celebrated in the form of dishes such as the choddo shaak in West Bengal, made a night before Kali Puja. “Some Bengalis also celebrate Bhoot Chaturdashi, when they eat 14 types of saag, or green leaves. These vegetables are cooked and then eaten together by the family,” says Shubhra Chatterjee, culinary researcher and director of award-winning TV shows such as Chakh Le India and Lost Recipes.
Her research on Diwali recipes has thrown up some interesting examples. When she was doing a show with chef Ranveer Brar, for instance, they ended up looking closely at a dish called lobhia ki boondi. Made with black-eyed peas, this pearly white dish has tiny boondis being served over a kadhi, also made of lobhia. “It hails from the Tarkhan community of woodworkers and carpenters in Punjab,” she says.
Another variation of this dish can be found in the royal kitchens of Indore and Rewa. Called indrahar, it takes on a pale hue and features dal dumplings, cooked overnight and then dunked in a kadhi.
“It is made on most festivals but is a must-have on Diwali by most royal families in the region. Indrahar is also considered a prasad for Lord Jagannath. The minute it makes an appearance on the table, you know that the festivities have begun,” says Anuradha Joshi Medhora of Charoli Foods, Mumbai, who runs a delivery kitchen and catering service based on the royal food traditions in the Malwa region.