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.

Diwali was always really big in Prakash's childhood home in Delhi. "We looked forward," she says, "to receiving many cash-filled envelopes from our elders, to visiting all our cousins and friends over a course of three or four days and taking gifts and sweet trays to every one of them."

Prakash, who conducts multi-cuisine cooking classes at the India Community Center in Milpitas, devotes a full month to her party preparations. Just the descriptions of her mithai table are enough to evoke a sugar high: two dozen burfis (made of almond, tofu, carrot, fig, date, coconut and more), rasmalai (Indian cottage cheese soaked in sweetened, condensed milk), and deep-fried gulab jamuns stuffed with pistachios or cashews.

For the decorations, she hand-sews a magnificent red canopy for the ritual Diwali dinner table and lights more than 500 candles and oil lamps. In her own spin on tradition, she even carves cucumber and opo squash boats for chutney, placing sailors with radish faces and green chile hats on the rims.

Getting together with friends and family on Diwali night is the most meaningful part of the holiday for many Indians. Anjali Jhangiani of Fremont takes off work on Diwali day and her daughters, 13-year-old Simrin and 9-year-old Samica, skip school. By 6 p.m., they're dressed in flowing sequined skirts and ready at the door to welcome guests.

On the appetizer menu is Indian street food -- chaat -- of many kinds, including bhel puri, a salad of the thinnest lentil noodles, puffed white rice, peanuts, onions, and tomatoes topped with date and coriander chutneys.

"Homemade chaat is such a treat for us Indians that I decided to offer it on Diwali night," Jhangiani says. So she stands by a pan of hot oil, frying more than 500 mini-puris (small, deep-fried wheat rounds that puff up in the hot oil) for 150 people for her Diwali night get-togethers.

Throwing an annual Diwali gala for close family and friends is Jhangiani's way of affirming her culture. Raised in the United States, she recalls growing up in Skokie, Ill., witnessing grand celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah but missing out on the most festive aspects of Hindu holidays. "There were very few Indians around us," she says, "and my parents didn't celebrate Diwali with much fanfare."

Like Jhangiani and Prakash, large numbers of Bay Area Indians get together at friends' homes or community centers and begin the festivities with a prayer to goddess Lakshmi. Indians believe that offering flowers and coins at her altar and singing songs in her praise will bring peace and prosperity to their homes and businesses.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus