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Roasted fish, bright lights and a syncretic Diwali

  • What does it take to plan an annual Diwali dinner and delicately handle a non-vegetarian menu
  • A clever recipe that is easy to make, and its star ingredient is less harmful for the planet

Biryani is central to the Diwali dinner
Biryani is central to the Diwali dinner

What should the main entrée be: a prawn biryani or mutton biryani?

That was the debate coursing through the Halarnkar household ahead of the annual Diwali dinner at my parents’ home. I was supposed to handle the non-vegetarian menu, but as happens when a mother and spouse are involved, interference was rampant, their organized minds unable to cope with my leave-it-to-me approach. Or perhaps my suggestion that I make my famous roast pork gave them cause to believe that my whole approach was flippant (there were, after all, guests who were observant, non-pork-eating Muslims).

Our annual Diwali dinner, hosted jointly by us and my parents, is not exactly traditional. We invite people who are dear to us and do not, ordinarily, celebrate Diwali at home. They are mainly south Indian Hindu, Christian and Muslim neighbours. As you may have gathered, there is meat, and everyone likes to have a drink. My parents, both in their 80s, believe every party will be the last they host, but they inevitably cave in to the daughter-in-law’s demands.

Rangoli is drawn on the doorstep, diyas are lit, my mother’s little puja alcove is aglow with light, fresh flowers are offered to the gods—including our family deity, Betal—and a few sparklers are set alight to amuse the nine-year old, who, like many young people, is not a great fan of crackers. Diwali was never a major southern festival, but over the years it has been enthusiastically adopted, as the rising decibel levels around us indicate.

We are, as I often mention, privileged and delighted to live in a truly multicultural neighbourhood, firmly entrenched in the old India. When we first moved here eight years ago, the modern antipathy towards firecrackers was evident, but our friend Nazia would have none of it. “What’s Diwali without crackers?" she demanded and quickly organized our first Bengaluru Diwali party, inviting other—mostly Hindu, some Christian—parents over. There in her first-floor flat, in a narrow lane inhabited almost completely by Muslims, we experienced our first, noisy Bengaluru Diwali.

Some of Nazia’s rowdy nephews set off firecrackers dangerously close to the petrol tanks of parked cars and motorcycles, as seemingly unconcerned neighbours dodged anaars and chakras—those fountains and whirligigs of light, fire and noise. Dinner was potluck, a smorgasbord of cultures and cuisines. That night at Nazia’s was more than fun, it was an extraordinary reintroduction to the syncretic Bengaluru of my childhood, and a reminder that it was alive and well.

A couple of years later, the wife—who is vegetarian (with the heart of a non-vegetarian)—evolved our non-vegetarian Diwali dinners, which I believe will now continue as long as we can produce them.

But diverse guests or not, the animal-focused Diwali debate should not be surprising to you, dear reader, because the Halarnkars, in any case, will eat anything and are not particularly conventional when it comes to festivals and food choices.

Baked fish with spinach and pistachios. Samar Halarnkar
Baked fish with spinach and pistachios. Samar Halarnkar

For instance, after years of grumbling by me and my brother each time Ganesh Chaturthi came around, my mother caved in one year and substituted the traditional modak—a rice-flour dumpling—of grated coconut and jaggery with kheema (minced meat). She was, as I recall, not particularly happy because that was the one day in the year when the household was supposed to be vegetarian.

She was more ambivalent about food choices during Diwali. We did go through years of making chiwda, chakli and shankarpali—sweet biscuits—revelling in cutting the flour into diamond shapes before they were deep-fried. My father loved them, but his sons did not particularly care.

I cannot recall protest from my mother when meat made its appearance at the Diwali dinner, but this year, with global warming accelerating and my editor reminding me that this Lounge edition has an eco-friendly theme, I decided to do our bit.

I opted for fish, which has always been traditional family cuisine and which I have increasingly taken to over the past year for two reasons: It is light on my ageing constitution and less harmful for the planet. Yes, I know the oceans are being fished out, and careless aquaculture can be ecologically harmful. But I am not likely to turn vegetarian, and given that fact, fish are certainly infinitely more eco-friendly to eat than beef or mutton. I increasingly eat cheaper—and more nutritious—fish, such as mackerel, sardine or anchovy.

Of course, my mother—and knowledgeable-after-marriage wife—would rebel if I suggested any of the above, so I planned to roast a pomfret, with little or no oil or gas, just 30 minutes worth of electricity. I conducted a dry run, the results of which are alongside. I thought it was worthy of the dinner, but the ladies appeared doubtful it could replace that biryani.

After all, it was Diwali.


Serves 4


K kg black pomfret (head lopped off, cleaned and slashed for marination)

1 banana leaf

2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

1 tsp garam masala powder

K tsp cumin powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

Juice of 1 lime

Salt to taste

2 tsp sesame oil

For the spinach

1 bunch spinach, washed and chopped

1 medium onion, sliced thin

100g pistachios

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp olive oil

2 yellow peppers, julienned

Salt to taste


Marinate the fish overnight in all the ingredients, taking care to rub the spice mix into the slashes on both sides. Wrap in a banana leaf. Preheat the oven and then bake the fish for 35 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius. Let stand in the oven for 10 minutes once done. Plunge a knife in to check if the fish is done.

Warm olive oil gently in a non-stick pan. Sauté garlic for a minute, add onion and fry until translucent. Add pistachios, spinach and salt and sauté until the water released from spinach evaporates. Arrange spinach around the fish.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.


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