Diwali recognizes the triumph of Rama, one of Vishnu’s most revered incarnations. As he and his wife, Sita, returned after the battle with the demon-king Ravana, their kingdom welcomed them home during a moonless night by lighting oilless lamps lining every street, doorway, and windowsill. The sight of a single flame rising defiantly from a small unglazed oil lamp, its flame flickering in wisps of gentle nighttime breezes, elicits warm and cardinal feelings of hope and resilience that transcend age, time, or religious beliefs.
Religions across the world symbolically celebrate faith in the triumph of all that is good, whether it is lighting a menorah in Judaism, prayer candles in Catholicism, a wreath filled with candles during Advent, or a kinara for Kwanzaa. For Hindus celebrating Diwali, it comes forward as the lighting of clay diyas – an event marking an elaborate five-day festival filled with festivities and decadent feasts.
Diwali is the most important celebration of a Hindu religious calendar, symbolizing the triumph of good through light, wisdom, and prosperity. It is both a single-day observance and a weeklong festival. While the main day of Diwali is observed on a moonless night, according to a traditional lunar calendar, South Asian celebrations are spread out over two to three days prior, and may continue up to five days beyond Diwali. Each day of Diwali honors a different aspect or narrative that is important to the family’s traditions.
Many families observing Diwali start their preparations several weeks ahead of time. As the festival occurs in the fall, dark nights are brightened with strings of lights, oil lamps, and votives. Lanterns are hung to symbolically invite all things good and thus mark the beginning of Diwali. The celebrations also extend to other parts of the home, including purchasing new kitchen utensils to usher a bountiful and healthy kitchen. Mithai shops that make traditional confections go into overdrive, as everyone uses their wares to supplement what is being made at home.
It’s important to note that Diwali rituals, festivities, and especially foods vary throughout the world. For example, treats made with sesame seeds are popular in parts of western India, while in some regions whole coriander seeds are pounded with jaggery and used as an offering to Goddess Lakshmi to seek blessings of health and prosperity. Other treats include preparations of rice and sugar either as kheer (a rice pudding with sugar) or puffed rice balls made with jaggery.
In communities that observe Govardhan Pooja, the day is observed with abundant offerings of food to Krishna as Annakut. Growing up in India, chef Palak Patel of Chattahoochee Food Works stall Dash and Chutney remembers visiting a Swaminarayan temple several times during Diwali, particularly during Annakut. As she notes in her streaming series, The Diwali Menu on Food Network, she looks forward to special treats like pooris and katchori that her mother still makes for the holidays, and coordinating family visits to celebrate the festive season together. Ambaji Shree Shakti Mandir of Atlanta in Lake City offers an Annakut for public viewing on Govardhan Pooja, along with other events with food throughout the year.
Just like preparing for Lent, and if folks have not made them already, families make fried foods like chakli – crunchy spirals of chickpea flour; and gujiya, empanada-like handheld pastries filled with dried fruits and nuts. Chef Archna Becker, owner of Bhojanic catering and Tandoori Pizza and Wing Co., says that gujiya is traditionally made for Diwali in her home. “Since it is fall, it makes complete sense to include dried fruits and nuts into one’s diet.”
Another family favorite is sooji halwa – a stovetop semolina preparation that is a must-have for the New Year celebrations. For Becker, most of their family celebrations and observances happen in and around the home.
Across parts of southern India where other deities take precedence, many traditional festive foods like murukku, the south Indian version of chakli, and teepi gavvalu, jaggery crusted white flour shells, are popular. Families also make legiyam, a kind of digestive to help feasters continue to enjoy Diwali. Take in the religious festivities locally at the Hindu Temple in Riverdale and head down to their small volunteer-run kitchen for traditional meals and treats.
In eastern India, particularly in West Bengal, the focus shifts to celebrating Kali, with Kali Pooja that coincides with the moonless night of Diwali. Traditional foods include eating a mix of 14 greens called choddo shak – an Ayurvedic blend of herbs meant to instill healthy eating habits, but also symbolically cleanse the body. This day also marks the time when the spirits of one’s ancestors come to visit and bless their family, much like the observances around Día de Muertos. The Bengali Association of Greater Atlanta hosts a special Kali Pooja celebration each year.
Chef Meherwan Irani, owner of James Beard award-winning restaurant Chai Pani in Asheville and Decatur, grew up in a blended household. His father was Parsi, and his mother was Hindu. He says it did not stop them from celebrating broader themes of the festival.
“The house would be decorated with lights and oil lamps, and the special sweets and treats were always around, my favorite being gulab jamun,” Irani says. “During Diwali Mela, Chai Pani puts special dishes on the menu and special desserts are prepared days in advance. Firecrackers are let off all evening, and our guests are all sent home with a goodie bag of homemade sweets.”
Diwali celebrations may appear to manifest as different things for different people. And it may appear to only be about eating decadent treats or shopping for new items. But for all who celebrate, Diwali is more than material things. It is about time spent surrounded by family weaving old traditions with new ones.
Chai Pani hosts its annual Diwali dinner in Decatur Monday, October 24, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations necessary.
Nandita Godbole is a cookbook author and freelance writer who divides her time between Atlanta and Los Angeles. In her upcoming cookbook, “Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends”, she explores the foodways of India’s diverse spice blends, and is using her biophilic pottery in its food photography to showcase the ties between India’s regional cuisines and its local ecologies.