One friend recently wrote that festivities around Diwali are akin to those of the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas combined. The former thanks to the colorful fireworks that light up the streets of India; Thanksgiving because Diwali is very much about family and food; and Christmas because of the rows of lights decorating homes and gift giving.
Diwali always evokes a wonderfully warm feeling within me, but my fondest memories are those associated with food. From savory samosas to spicy sabji (vegetable dishes) to aloo parathas (potato stuffed flat bread) to aromatic basmati rice, food is central to all Diwali gatherings and celebrations. But of all food, mithai – or dessert – tends to hold a particular place in the heart of almost every Indian, and during Diwali, the importance of mithai cannot be overstated.
A thin, tall, and handsome man, my father has more self control over his food consumption than anyone I have ever met. But when Diwali rolls around and mithai is plentiful, even my steadfast father wavers. When he comes face to face with a piping hot jalebi, all willpower melts, and my dad, like so many others, is powerless to resist the sugary sweet, fried, pretzel-shaped, orange mithai. Jalebi used to be a staple at our Diwali celebrations years ago, when my aunt made them fresh at her home in North Carolina. Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters would all gather around the kitchen counter, watching her fry the dough with such ease and precision. A jalebi would barely make it on to the plate before it was devoured by my father or one of my uncles. No matter how fast she worked, my aunt could barely keep up with them. During the years we lived in North Carolina, Diwali was synonymous with jalebi, and my aunt never once failed to deliver. I’m certain that when I visit my parents this weekend, my aunt’s famous jalebis will be certainly be a topic of conversation, as they are every Diwali.
My mother, on the other hand, is much harder to pin down to one particular mithai. For years, I associated my mother with peda, a soft, round mithai made from milk powder and sweetened condensed milk. Pedas are one of the more commonly found mithais during Diwali, and they can come in a number of colors. But at some point, my mother’s love for pedas diminished, and new mithais entered our home. From kaju katri to pista (pistachio) burfi, from kulfi to mango ice cream, from gulab jamun to ras malai, countless mithais have graced our Diwali festivities. They are shared with guests, friends, neighbors, teachers, and coworkers. They bring smiles to the faces of children and adults alike. These mithais, in their varying shapes, colors, and textures, are part and parcel of every Diwali celebration. They bring family and friends together. They bring laughter and warmth to the evening. Truthfully, I don’t like most mithais…but I would never want to attend a Diwali party without them.