Happy Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Traditional Diwali Lamps

Yesterday was the first day of – Diwali – The Festival of Lights for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world. This means that for the past few weeks, women have been working overtime in kitchens throughout the subcontinent and diaspora communities to prepare traditional foods for the five-day long celebration.
Many things are celebrated on Diwali, but the overarching reason for the holiday for Hindus is to commemorate the return of Lord Rama from his long exile and his triumph over the demon-king Ravana. To welcome Rama, people clean and decorate their homes and businesses, dress in new clothes, perform religious rituals (puja), and feast on sweet and savory snacks and light firecrackers to frighten evil spirits away.

Although traditions vary by geographic location and ethnicity, generally speaking, on the first day, Hindus celebrate the return of prosperity to the earth. In many places cows and calves are worshipped or given special consideration, and for many Indian businesses, this is also the first day of the new financial year. Today (the second day) commemorates the birth of Dhanvantari, the Physician God and is an auspicious day to make certain purchases. Tomorrow, the third day, celebrates Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura and in preparation for a Krishna/Vishnu puja, oil lamps are lit and elaborate ritual artworks called kolams or rangolis are prepared. These rangoli can either be simple decorations of powdered rice or grain or elaborate mandala-like geometric patterns made with multi-colored sand or flour or even flower petals. People often get up before sunrise to bathe under the stars and after worship, feasting, and visiting family and friends begins.

Simple and Complex Rangolis

On the fourth day, the Lakshmi puja celebrates the Goddess Lakshmi and the God Ganesh and renewed prosperity is once again celebrated. The fifth day is day is celebrated as Govardhan puja or Annakoot, and is celebrated as the day Krishna defeated Indra and by the lifting of Govardhana hill to save his kinsmen and cattle from rain and floods. In some places on this day, mountains of food are piled up and decorated symbolizing the earth lifted by Krishna. The day after Diwali is a special celebration for brothers and sisters, with the women and girls traditionally making and serving their brother’s favorite foods and receiving gifts from their brothers in return.

For Jains, Diwali has a very different meaning. It is celebrated as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain prophets of this era, attained nirvana. To the Jains, the name for the celebration, Dipalikaya roughly translates as “light leaving the body”. Hence the thousands of lamps lit during these holidays are seen as “souls” to the Jains. The Jain New Year begins after Diwali celebrations conclude.

For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. Having been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir, the guru was to be released but begged for clemency for the 52 princes that had been imprisoned with him. The emperor declared that only those princes who could hold onto the gurus cloak could leave with him. In a brilliant ruse, the guru made a cloak with 52 pieces of string to allow all the princes to grab onto the cloak and exit with him. Today, the Sikhs celebrate the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting their Golden Temple and other Sikh places of worship around the world.

A Selection of Diwali Sweets

The many sweets enjoyed at this time of year are called mithai* and are made from a ground of chickpea flour, rice flour, semolina, various beans, lentils and grains, squashes, or carrots, thickened condensed milk or yoghurt. These ingredients are then pounded together or cooked and flavored with cashews, almonds, pistachios, or raisins. Other ingredients can include fragrant spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or cumin or kewra (pandan leaf essence). The most fancy of the sweets can contain silver or gold leaf design elements as well. Households cook and exchange elaborately decorated boxes of these sweets with family and friends as part of the Dewali celebrations.

Savory Snacks for Diwali

The savory snacks enjoyed at this time are made from chickpeas, rice, lentil and several other varieties of flours, sesame seeds, fresh fenugreek leaves or coconut, and pounded into assorted shapes and usually deep-fried or in these health-conscious days baked. Sometimes different snacks are combined with nuts and flavored in special ways to make special snack “mixes”. Small breads, such as puris and pakoras fried in ghee are also enjoyed as savory snacks at this time.

Recipes for Diwali snacks are available in the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One in the Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka chapters and include:  Pastry in Sweet Milk and Rosewater (Ras Malai), Sweet Milk Squares with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Almond Custard, Semolina Squares with Saffron and Cardamom, Sweet Split-Pea Pudding and Sweet Coconut-Cardamom Balls.  Additional recipes will be available in the next volume of the book as well.

(Words and Photo of A Selection of Diwali Snacks by Laura Kelley; photo of Tradtional Diwali Lamps by The Final Miracle@Dreamstime.com, and photo of Savory Diwali Snacks by Ashwin Abhirama.  Individual images for the photo simple and complex rangolis are from Wikimedia Commons.)

*Please notice the root “mith” as in Mithras (or Mithrandir for fantasy fans) to denote the connection to fire and light as in zoroastrianism.

Christmas in India

Elephant Christmas Tree

Trees adorned with lights, candles and lamps in the window, strings of paper lanterns cut into intricate patterns – all around the world, Christmas is one of the many human holidays that celebrates the return of light to the world. For Christians this light is believed to be God’s light as witnessed in the birth of Jesus. In pre-Islamic Egypt, Osiris died and was reborn as an infant on December 21st, and in ancient Rome, the Emperor Aurelian combined the rebirth of the many god-men worshipped within his empire into a single holiday called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun which fell on December 25th. The Jews have Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – at more or less the same time of the year, and the Zoroastrians have Shab-e Yaldaa. * Underlying all of these more modern beliefs, however, are millennia-old pagan celebrations of the winter solstice as the rekindling of daylight that grows ever brighter until the summer sun-setting solstice half a year away.

Along the Silk Road, the largest number of Christians in any one country is in predominantly Hindu India. Estimates vary widely, but there are between 35,000,000 to 66,000,000 Christians in India, with those of Catholic faith comprising slightly less than half of the total number. That’s five to ten times as many Christians than live in Christian Georgia and Armenia combined! In a country of almost 1 billion Hindus and 132 million Muslims, Christians are still a minority in India, but in some urban areas like Mumbai and Kerala, there are large Christian communities who have a beautiful and distinct ways of celebrating the holiday that blend Christian religious practice and iconography with Indian material culture.

Christmas Stars to Heaven

Celebrations often begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the New Year. Families gather on Christmas Eve for processions through the streets to Churches decorated with the bold crimson foliage of Poinsettias in bloom for a Midnight Mass to begin the holiday season. People worship as choirs sing religious and secular traditional songs. In some parishes, fireworks are lit after services and people dance, feast and exchange presents well into the longest night of the year.Other familiar traditions get a uniquely Indian twist on the subcontinent and Nativity scenes are displayed in Christian homes and banana and mango trees are decorated with lights and oil lamps are placed on roofs and walls to declare the return of the light as is also done for India’s Diwali festival. Most startling and magical are the strings of star-shaped paper lanterns that are hung from rooftop to rooftop and in front of Christian-owned shops and restaurants ostensibly to light the way of all men. Caroling takes place in Christian communities and in most urban melting-pots as crowds of people gather to walk through the streets and make a joyous noise to celebrate their faith.

Families prepare for weeks or sometimes months for the coming of Christmas and homes are cleaned, repaired and whitewashed. That ever-earlier harbinger of the Christmas season in the West – shopping – also takes place in India as people shop for new clothes to wear to festivities and buy presents for loved ones. For women and girls the holiday also includes preparing special foods – particularly desserts and cakes to share with holiday visitors and cooking can begin long in advance of the holiday. Students return home for the holidays and adults living away from their place of birth often return at this time to visit their parents.

Christmas Day itself is a national holiday in India and the day off from work and official duties often prompts people of other faiths to have large family dinners at this time as well. So, even if they make up a small portion of India’s population, Christians have freedom to worship and celebrate this season that is both known and in some secular ways shared by their brothers and sisters of other creeds.

A Tray of Indian Sweets

Even if this Christmas season began in Mumbai with the violence of brother against brother, in a spirit of peace, let us all continue in tolerance and love for people of all faiths. Despite the lack of a moral compass by the men (and women) who may have carried out such hateful deeds, they are not representative of any creed or culture other than their own marginalized, misguided groups. Every faithful or thoughtful person – regardless of their religion or beliefs – should be appalled by the violence of the Mumbai bombings and should try to find a way in their own lives to take a small but conscious step to counter hate and let the light of the season shine just a bit brighter than it might have before their action. Christian or not, the solstice season is about the return of the sun and victory of light over darkness, and when we act in tolerance and in love we all become part of ensuring that victory. Merry Christmas India, Merry Christmas World. (Words by Laura Kelley, Elephant Christmas Tree © Eti Swinford | Dreamstime.com” , Christmas Stars to Heaven © Nikhil Gangavane | Dreamstime.com and Tray of Indian Sweets © Sunil Lal | Dreamstime.com)

*The Islamic festival of lights is Ramadan and Hindu India’s holiday is Diwali. Both fall according to a lunar calendar and are not associated with solstice celebrations.

A Silk Road Thanksgiving

With the US’s Thanksgiving Day rapidly approaching, I thought I’d offer a few recipes from the first volume of The Silk Road Gourmet to help you blend Silk Road cookery with traditional fare for the holiday feast. The first recipe is a side vegetable dish from Armenia called Green Beans with Walnuts. This dish blends the flavors of string beans with tomato sauce, cinnamon and walnuts – to delicious results. Its not too dissimilar to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Loby. Its spiciness comes from freshly ground black pepper accenting the cinnamon instead of from some form of red pepper and the turmeric only adds to the warm blanket of flavor surrounding the beans. Serve hot with a roast meat or kebab dish or enjoy it all by itself for a quick lunch.

Green Beans with Walnuts

1 pound green beans, stemmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup water
1 cup tomato sauce

1. Heat butter in a sauté pan and sauté onions until they start to soften and take on some color. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomatoes start to break up. Then add salt and pepper, turmeric and cinnamon and stir again.

2. Mix the water and the tomato sauce together and add to the onions and tomatoes. Cook to warm then add the green beans and cook covered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the green beans start to soften. Then cook uncovered until the beans are tender but still firm.

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A salad that will be sure to please from Pakistan is their Mixed Bean Salad which is a mild salad to begin or end a flavorful or spicy meal with. In this dish, the grapeseed oil and white vinegar combine with the sugar and black pepper to accent the beans and other vegetables with a light sweet and sour dressing. It’s moderately spicy when first made and mellows a lot after marinating for a while. I like to prepare it in the morning or by noon before an evening meal and let it rest in the refrigerator for several hours. I recommend taking it out at least one hour before serving as it is best served only slightly chilled and not really cold.

Mixed Bean Salad

1 cup northern white beans or butter beans, drained
1 cup of chick peas, drained
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium red pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 green chili peppers, diced
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup of grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped (15 – 20 sprigs)

1. Combine beans, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.

2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

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A legion of appetizers can start this special meal and include Azeri Oven Bread and Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce from Azerbaijan. The bread is a standard on the Azeri table and in the markets, baskets of golden bread with poppy seeds and sesame are available fresh everyday. The sauce is found throughout the Caucasus, Caspian and Southwest Asia and combines cooling cucumber and yogurt with garlic, pepper herbs and ground sumac.

Azeri Oven Bread

1 package dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 egg yolk, for garnish
1 teaspoon poppy or sesame seeds

1. In a small bowl, mix yeast with water until the yeast is dissolved, set aside until the yeast activates. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add salt and mix well. Gradually add the yeast-water mixture and stir in using your hand until a rough ball forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough, folding it over and turning for about 5-8 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball and put it back into the large bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 1-11/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and punch it down. Knead for about another 2-3 minutes and shape the dough into a ball. Then using a rolling pin, start rolling the dough that is about 1 foot long, 8 inches wide and about ½ and inch thick.

4. Transfer the bread onto a greased and floured baking sheet and using a knife, make shallow crosshatching slashes on the bread and let rest for about 20 minutes before baking. Just before popping the bread in the oven, brush it with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with the sesame or poppy seeds.

5. On the middle rack of a well preheated oven bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until it is golden in color.

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Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce

11/2 cups whole-milk plain yogurt
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and grated
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon sumac

Combine in a bowl the yogurt, garlic, cucumbers mint and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the flavors to blend. Before serving, stir in some sumac and garnish with mint leaves.

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Another wonderful and very flavorful accompaniment to a Silk Road feast are the Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles eaten throughout Western Asia. It has to be prepared well in advance – so start now to enjoy it by Thanksgiving.

Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles

2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
3 hot dried red, chili peppers
1 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1. Place the peeled garlic in a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1-2 hours shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.

2. Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers and the dill to the garlic and then top off with the pomegranate juice and vinegar mixture. Cover and shake well. Store refrigerated for at least 2 weeks before eating.

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Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves are also widely enjoyed in Western and Central Asia and make a great addition to the holiday table.

Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves

½ pound ground lamb or beef
½ cup rice, cooked and cooled
1 medium onion, peeled and very finely diced
1/3 cup freshly chopped dill
Zest of 1 lemon, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 dozen grape leaves, unrolled, rinsed and patted dry
2 tablespoons butter
11/2 cups beef stock (plus enough to top off the grape leaves as they cook)
1. In a mixing bowl combine meat, rice, onion, dill and salt and pepper and mix well until spices and other ingredients are evenly integrated into the meat. Trim the hard stems from the grape leaves and lay out flat on a cutting board.

2. Depending on the size of the leaf, place a tablespoon or two of filling in the center of the leaf and first fold in the left and right edges of the leaf to enclose the meat. Then, fold up the bottom edges, and roll the leaf, from the bottom up, tucking the edges in as you roll to fully jacket the meat.

3. When all dolmas are rolled, place each one seam side down in a sauté pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. In a small saucepan, combine the beef stock and the butter and when hot pour it over the dolmas. Simmer covered over very low heat for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, topping off the broth as needed. The dolmas shouldn’t be swimming in the broth, but they do need to be moist or they won’t cook evenly. When they’re done, there should be very little liquid left in the pan. Remove to dry and serve on a platter with sour cream or yogurt spiced with garlic and salt.

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For a delicious plain pilaf with a touch of nutty flavor that really complements the roasted meat dishes, try the Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf offered in volume 1 of the Silk Road Gourmet. It probably came to Armenia from Arabia during one of the periods of Islamic conquest of the region and is still eaten in Arabia and in several Muslim countries around Asia.

Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf

3 tablespoons butter
1 cup rice
1 cup chicken or beef broth
1 cup water
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly roasted
1/4 cup sesame seeds, lightly roasted
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves

1. Melt butter in a large sauté pan and sauté the onion until it softens and starts to color, then add the fenugreek and the roasted seeds and nuts and mix well. Cook over medium until the onions have wilted completely.

2. Add salt and pepper to the onions along with the stock and water and bring the mixture to a boil. When the water is hot, add the rice and return to a boil. Then lower heat and cook covered 15-20 minutes or until the rice is done.

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For dessert – if you have any room for some – I recommend the delicate Rose and Cardamom Pudding that is eaten throughout Western and Southwestern Asia and is an Afghani favorite. If you have room for something more substantial, try the honey and citrus-laced nut-cake Ravane that is also enjoyed from Greece and southern Russia in Europe through Central Asia and the Levant States. Both can be enjoyed with a robust, flavorful coffee or a milk-laced sweet tea that is enjoyed in one form or another thoughout Asia.

Rose and Cardamom Pudding

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons corn starch
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon ground pistachio nuts

Mix whole milk with cornstarch and cardamom and rose water in a sauce pan. Bring it to a boil – stirring constantly. When the mix comes to a boil, remove from the stove, and put into a shallow serving dish. Refrigerate and serve with finely chopped pistachios sprinkled on top.

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Ravane

CAKE
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup ground walnuts
1 cup ground almonds, blanched and brown skins removed
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
Zest from 1 lemon, finely diced
Zest from 1 orange, finely diced
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup cream or half and half

SYRUP
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
½ lemon, sliced
½ orange sliced

1. In a large mixing bowl combine dry ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk or beat eggs until frothy, then slowly add sugar a bit at a time until well mixed with the eggs. Add melted butter, diced lemon and orange zest and mix again. Lastly add the ground cinnamon and the cream or half and half. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix well. The mixture is very dense and difficult to mix and you will probably have to stir by hand until well integrated.

2. Oil or spray a 9 by 12 inch baking pan and pour or spoon batter into the pan, spreading it evenly across the pan surface. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake. When cake is done remove from the oven to cool.

3. While cake is baking or at some time before baking, you can make the syrup. In a medium saucepan, heat water until boiling and then lower heat to a steady simmer and add sugar about a ¼ to ½ cup at a time. Stir constantly until sugar is dissolved and add cinnamon stick and citrus slices. Cook for 20-30 minutes to impart the flavors of the lemon and orange and cinnamon stick to the syrup and stirring often to make sure that the syrup is thickening nicely. Remove from heat and let cool about 15 minutes before removing cinnamon and fruit slices.

4. When syrup has cooled, prick the top of the cake with a fork or toothpick, but only go about halfway down, don’t penetrate the cake completely. Little by little pour the syrup in an even layer over the cake and wait for it to be absorbed. At first the cake will greedily take in the syrup and later it will absorb it more slowly. The point is not to make the cake swim in the syrup, but to provide enough syrup to moisten the cake and lend its fruity, cinnamon flavor. Cover tightly and let sit overnight before serving. Serve by cutting into diamonds or squares and placing onto individual serving plates. Garnish with chopped almonds or pistachios and a pinch of cardamom.

Now, if that’s not a Silk Road feast fit for a King or a Shah or a Rajah – I don’t know what is. I hope you try a couple of these recipes – for Thanksgiving or for some other meal – and post about them if you enjoyed them. (Words by Laura Kelley)