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Ammini Ramachandran

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Plano, Texas

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Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based freelance writer, culinary educator and author of "Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy" (iUniverse 2007). She has contributed to Flavor & Fortune, Sacred Waters, Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism and Storied Dishes. She is a correspondent for Heritage India and writes about the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state of Kerala, India, on her website www.peppertrail.com.

Ramachandran has taught Indian cooking classes at Central Market Cooking Schools in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, and the Institute of Culinary Education, New York. She was a presenter at the 10th annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival -- Rise of Asia -- at the Culinary Institute of America in 2007 and her recipes appear in "The Flavors of Asia" published by the Culinary Institute of America. She has made presentations at The New York Women's Culinary Alliance, American Institute of Wine and Food, Dallas, the Houston Culinary Guild and Culinary Historians of New York.

She has a B.Sc. in chemistry, MBA in finance and a diploma in article writing. She is a member of Slow Food USA and Culinary Historians of New York.

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How Chef Iliana De La Vega Reinvents Oaxacan Food Image

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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How Favorite Indian Sweets Changed Dramatically Image

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Sweet Hindu Offerings Fit For The Gods In India Image

Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghats mountain range in India called Sabarimala, a Hindu shrine lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November through the first half of January. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it barefoot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship at Sabarimala. The temples provide food offerings called neyyappam, made with rice, jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and cooked in ghee.

With close to 70 million people making the pilgrimage annually, this is one of the largest in the world.  To help make their important offerings, about 4 million neyyappams were sold to pilgrims as Hindu offerings by the end of the first 10 days of the pilgrimage season in 2013.

Sabarimala is one of hundreds of temples all over South India that prepare this sweet dish and several others as offerings. The enshrined deities of the Hindu temples are faithfully fed with formal offerings of food every day. The offerings at temples are always the most excellent food.

The favorite food of the gods

The priests and their helpers prepare them in the temple kitchen. The traditional cooks who prepare them do not follow any written recipes, nor are they trained at any culinary schools. They perfect their art through practice under the watchful eyes of senior priests. But the proof of their culinary skills is in the most delicious prasadam (food that has been offered to God), which devotees receive from the temples.

Those little morsels of prasadam have a very special taste, maybe because visitors receive only a small serving, or maybe because it is the gods’ favorite food. Biting through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and savoring the soft and chewy middle of the neyyappam is sheer delight.

There are no written records of their origin, but sweetened cakes made of grains as Hindu offerings were prevalent since very ancient times in India. Apupa, a prototype of neyyappam, was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. In “Food and Drink in Ancient India” Om Prakash writes that apupa possibly was the earliest sweet known in India. Apupa was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies.

It was made with barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a low fire and sweetened with honey, and later with sugar cane juice. The cook made apupa assume the shape of a tortoise by cooking it on clay pot with a curved bottom. Even centuries later, the recipe and the method of cooking this ancient dish have remained practically unchanged.

A world of cooking vessels

Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds.

Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes.

The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers.

Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”

In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.

Neyyappam

Makes 12 to 15

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice

1 cup jaggery

1 medium-sized ripe banana, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)

1 tablespoon thinly sliced coconut pieces (optional)

½ cup ghee, divided

Directions

1. Soak the rice in water for two to three hours, and then rinse it in several changes of water until the water runs clear, and drain.

2. In a sauce pan melt the jaggery with ¼ cup of water. Strain through a fine sieve and cool.

3. In a blender, combine the rice, banana, and jaggery with just enough water to grind it into a fine, smooth, thick batter.

4. Stir in the cardamom powder and coconut slices if using. This batter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter.

5. Heat an aebleskiver pan over medium heat.

6. Pour ½ teaspoon ghee in each cavity of the pan.

7. Pour in the batter, ¾ of the way in each cavity. Pour a ½ teaspoon of ghee on top of each neyyappam and cook over medium heat.

8. When the bottom of the neyyappam is cooked (in a minute or so), turn it over, and cook the other side.

9. When neyyappam turns brown in color, remove from the griddle, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Top photo: Neyyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Fenugreek Works Its Magic On Sweet Potatoes Image

On dark, cold winter nights, nothing is more comforting than a warm kitchen filled with the aromas of a favorite comfort food simmering on the stovetop. For me, fresh fenugreek leaves cooked with sweet potatoes is one such comfort food.

Although a few summer vegetables remain available at U.S. grocery stores, most are long gone. Indian grocers, though, still stock frozen okra and eggplant. Along with several root vegetables, the one thing they stock abundantly is one of my favorite leaf vegetables, fenugreek leaves.

Fenugreek, one of the earliest known plant species, belongs to the bean family trigonella foenumgracum. It  sprouts in cold weather with leaves consisting of three small ovate to oblong leaflets. The plant can grow to be about 2 feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds. Although it is a legume, fenugreek’s sprouts and fresh leaves are used as leaf vegetables, its dried leaves are used as an herb, and the small and oblong shaped yellowish brown seeds are used as a spice.

Fenugreek sprouts have a slightly pungent-sweet taste, which adds texture, taste and color to salads. Fresh leaves have a bitter-sweet taste and in Indian cuisine they are cooked as any leaf vegetable in curries as well as Indian flat breads. Dried fenugreek leaves are used in Northern Indian curries to enhance the flavor. Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste. Dry roasting enhances the flavor and reduces their bitterness. These need close attention while toasting because over-roasting will make them turn reddish brown and taste very bitter.

Health benefits through history

Ayurveda defines a balanced meal as one that includes six tastes:  sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, sour and hot. Fenugreek is an ideal source of the bitter constituent in this balance. It’s rich in iron, calcium, phosphorous and is high in protein. According to Ayurveda, fenugreek slows the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulates insulin production. Both of these positively affect blood sugar in people with diabetes. It is believed to help lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fenugreek is used for digestive problems, such as loss of appetite and inflammation of the stomach. It is also used in preparing an herbal infusion to break up respiratory congestion.

Fenugreek is indigenous to western Asia, and southeastern Europe. Today it is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop. It has a long history as a culinary and medicinal herb in the ancient world. Its bitter seeds have held medicinal promise for many cultures over thousands of years. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. In ancient Egypt, fenugreek was used for the mummification process. It is widely used in the West, Central and South Asia and Northern and Eastern Africa. Iran has a rich tradition of cooking with fenugreek leaves. The Ethiopian spice mixture berbere contains small amounts of fenugreek.

Sweet potatoes as a perfect partner

Fenugreek leaves cooked with potatoes yields a very tasty side dish that is popular in India. Although the recipe calls for white potatoes, I prefer to use sweet potatoes. The mild sweetness of sweet potatoes perfectly balances the slight bitterness of the fenugreek leaves.

It is a bit time-consuming to separate the small leaves from the stem, but the resulting dish is well worth the effort. It is ideal to use the sweet potatoes with a golden skin and creamy white or pale flesh in this dish. These have a crumbly texture compared to the very soft texture of the orange flesh variety. Though orange-fleshed varieties are most common, white or very light yellow-fleshed types are also available at most grocery stores.

Fenugreek Leaves With Sweet Potato

Serves 4

Ingredients

One large, or two medium, sweet potatoes

2 cups fenugreek leaves removed from stems

2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil

1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds

1 teaspoon dry-roasted and crushed cumin seeds

A few fresh curry leaves (if available)

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Salt to taste

¼ teaspoon turmeric powder

½ teaspoon cayenne powder (less for milder taste)

Directions

1. Peel and cut the sweet potato into ½-inch cubes.

2. Clean the fenugreek leaves and separate the leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the fenugreek leaves.

3. Heat ghee/oil in a saucepan at medium heat and add mustard seeds. When the seeds start spluttering, stir in cumin seeds, curry leaves and ginger. Fry for a minute and then add the cubed sweet potatoes. Stir well, reduce the heat, and cover and cook.

4. After five minutes, sprinkle salt, turmeric and cayenne powder into the mixture and stir gently. Cover again and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the sweet potato pieces are cooked tender.

5. Add chopped fenugreek leaves, stir and cover the pan. Cook until the leaves wilt, about five minutes

6. Remove from the stove and serve hot with rice or Indian flat breads.

Top photo: Fenugreek leaves and seeds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Homemade Christmas Wine, The Kerala Way Image

Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.

Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.

Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.

Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.

In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.

These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.

The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.

Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.

The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.

It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.

Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine

Makes 16 cups

Ingredients

2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry

1 teaspoon dry yeast

2¼ pounds sugar

18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature

¼ cup wheat kernels

4 cloves

1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed

1 egg white

Directions

1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.

2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.

3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.

4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.

5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.

By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.

6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.

7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.

8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.

Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Sweets To Make For Diwali, India’s Festival Of Lights Image

Diwali, also called Deepavali, the festival of lights, is a holiday of jubilation and togetherness celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs throughout India as well as in Indian communities around the world.

The festival is embraced by people regardless of religious background; it connects the followers of various religions in grand celebrations of victory of good over evil. With warmer days turning into a mild winter in India, the fun-filled Diwali is celebrated by each community in its own special way, and each religion adds its own color and customs to this grand festival of lights.

Houses are decorated with myriad tiny lamps and candles placed around the home, in courtyards, and gardens, as well as on rooftops. These displays symbolize removing ignorance and gaining knowledge. The night sky lights up with fireworks streaking like lightning, splintering into rainbows before vanishing in a dazzle of flashing smoke. A wide assortment of sweets and savory snacks are prepared at home or bought from sweet shops and shared with everyone. Because Diwali signifies renewal of life, it is common to wear new clothes on the day of the festival.

Sweet and extravagant

More than sumptuous feasts, sweets prepared with various nuts and flours, milk, dried fruits and fragrant spices such as saffron and cardamom are the centerpiece of Diwali celebrations. These sweets are often decorated with vark, a very thin layer of edible silver.

In times past, preparations began weeks ahead with the cleaning, roasting and powdering various lentils and rice in the granite grindstone, making paneer (cheese) and ghee at home, and buying fresh oil straight from the oil press. The irresistible aromas of barfi, gulab Jamun, peda, jilebi, laddu, mysorepak and a host of other sweets and savories lingered in the air.

Today sweets are often bought from commercial manufacturers. It is the busiest season for the sweet shops in India. Sweets, snacks, fruits and nuts packaged in beautiful containers are exchanged with friends and neighbors.

The date of Diwali fluctuates as it is based on the Hindu calendar with solar years and lunar months. It falls either in October or November, just the day before the new moon. In 2013, it is on Nov. 3.

Multicultural celebrations

India is a land of mythological tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, and Diwali means many different things to people from different regions. In north India, Diwali celebrates Lord Rama’s homecoming after killing the demon king Ravana. One of the unique customs of Diwali consists of indulgence in gambling. Nowadays, cards have replaced dice.

In south India, Diwali celebrates Lord Krishna’s triumph over demon king Narakasura. Festivities start very early in the morning with entire households waking up before dawn for an auspicious oil bath. Children light up firecrackers, and everyone feasts on sweet delicacies.

In Gujarat and neighboring states, the festivities continue for a week. On Dhan Teras, Lakshmi,  the goddess of wealth and prosperity, is worshiped in the evening with lighting of lamps. This day is believed to be auspicious to purchase metals. Celebrants often buy gold or silver or at least one or two new metal utensils.

For the business communities of Gujarat, Diwali also marks the beginning of the new financial year, which starts the day after Diwali. In Bengal, Orissa and Assam at Diwali, Kali Puja is celebrated by lighting firecrackers in honor of the goddess Kali. The occasion is also marked by creating intricate patterns with colored flour called rangoli. After the rangoli is drawn, lamps are set on top of the designs and lit.

The significance of Diwali extends beyond Hinduism. The Jains celebrate this day in honor of the attainment of nirvana, or eternal bliss, by Lord Mahavir, who was the last tirthankara, or religious teacher, of the Jains.

The foundation of the Golden Temple of Sikhs at Amritsar is believed to have been laid on Diwali day in 1577. Buddhists celebrate quietly by chanting and remembering Emperor Asoka who converted to Buddhism on this day.

With more and more Indians migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated keeps increasing. Because it is not a public holiday outside India, Diwali celebrations often take place on a weekend close to the actual festival. In major cities across the United States, the festival takes the form of a great fair with vendors selling Indian goods as well as food, cultural performances and fireworks. The White House has hosted Diwali celebrations since 2003.

Regardless of the varying styles and forms of celebrations observed by different regions, there is an underlying similarity in the celebration of this festival. Diwali festivities all celebrate the victory of good over evil and symbolize a reaffirmation of hope and a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill. Diwali’s traditional dishes reflect this uplifting theme and emphasize wonderful sweets, including an easy-to-make semolina pudding.

Rava Kesari (Semolina Pudding)

Here is an unbelievably easy dessert made with farina or cream of wheat, which are readily available in U.S. supermarkets.

Ingredients

½ cup ghee

10 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped

10 raisins

2½ cups milk

A few strands of saffron

1 cup farina or cream of wheat

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon powdered cardamom

Directions

1. Heat two tablespoons of the ghee in a skillet and fry the cashews until they are golden brown. Add the raisins and let them plump up. Remove it from the stove and set aside.

2. Add saffron to the milk and stir well.

3. In a large, heavy skillet, toast the farina in 2 teaspoons of the ghee until it is well toasted. Add the saffron-milk mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for 8 to 10 minutes. When farina starts to thicken, stir in the sugar and the remaining ghee, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir continually to prevent lumps from forming.

4. When it is dry, in about 6 to 8 minutes, sprinkle cardamom and add the cashew nut and raisin mixture. Stir well to combine.

5. Scoops of warm rava kesari may be served in small bowls. Or spread it on a greased plate, after the mixture has cooled down, and cut it into squares or other desired shapes.

Top photo: Diwali sweets and lamps. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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