Sugar, Spice, Sentiment: Diwali's Essential Elements

The Hindu festival is a time for parties, card games, lights--and plenty of food.

A week before Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, Sushila Iyer sweats in her Almaden Valley kitchen, laboring over soaked urad dal -- skinned black lentils with creamy white interiors.

Iyer grinds the lentils with drops of water in her food processor and places a ball of the dough inside a thin cotton cloth with a hole in the center. Then she begins to create art by pressing out a stream of dough into a three-inch circle directly over hot oil, drawing pretty loops around the circle without pause.

Hard work? You bet. These saffron-colored jhangiris, which will be soaked in sugar syrup, are a gourmand's delight at South Indian celebrations. For daredevil cooks like Iyer of San Jose, Diwali is a time for dishes bubbling with sugar, spice and sentiment.

In the Bay Area, where 125,000 Indo-Americans make their homes, the weeks around the big day pulsate with colorful garbas (dance groups) in community centers, daily music concerts in temples, trips to Indian sweet stalls and elaborate cooking, eating and partying at home.

Back in India, it's the year's biggest holiday, and traditions vary by region. Families in Chennai on the southeastern coast wake up at 3 a.m. on Diwali morning. They light a lamp at the altar, and the oldest member of the family dots everyone's forehead with vermilion and gives them new clothes to signify a new beginning. Kids slip into their finery and rush out into the courtyard to light firecrackers until daylight.


Food plays a central role in the celebrations -- from the fried lentil patties called thattai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu to the kheer (sweetened rice pudding) and fudge-like sweets of Uttar Pradesh in the north.

Iyer remembers her grandmother, who lived in Calcutta, laboring over special dishes for her grandfather every Diwali. "My mother did the same," she says, "and I follow suit."

Individual touches

Here in Northern California, expatriates from all over India are creating unique celebrations, adding their own touches to the traditions they brought with them.

"For Diwali, I can use my imagination, unlike for other festivals," Iyer says. "Perhaps because it celebrates the conquest of good over evil, our forefathers gave us the freedom to do anything we wanted, and that means experimenting with new sweets and savories."

In the Fremont home of Charu Prakash -- who throws an annual Diwali bash for 150 people -- house lights blaze all Diwali night to guarantee that the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, enters the house to bless its occupants.

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