While food plays an important role in the festivities, there tends not to be a set menu or universally observed list of dishes, with traditions varying from region to region and indeed family to family
Diwali 2017: Our guide to what and where to eat in the UAE for the festival of lights
Diwali, India’s biggest festival, is also one of its most joyful. Synonymous with family gatherings, feasting and the exchange of gifts, all set against a backdrop of ornate decorations, twinkling lights, dazzling fireworks and colourful rangolis, the five-day event is observed by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains all over the world. Although each religion has a different interpretation of the Diwali story, they celebrate the triumph of good over evil, positive over negative, knowledge over ignorance and the importance of spreading peace and happiness.
While food plays an important role in the festivities, there tends not to be a set menu or universally observed list of dishes, with traditions varying from region to region and indeed family to family. That said, Indian sweets and desserts, known as mithais, are part of almost all Diwali celebrations. Mithais come in a gorgeous, glistening array of different colours, shapes, sizes and flavours, and are eaten at weddings, religious festivals and at other significant events throughout the year. During Diwali, they take on a particular importance and are nibbled on throughout the day, and often eaten alongside main meals, too. It’s also customary for these delicacies to be packaged up extravagantly with dried fruit and nuts, and given as gifts to friends, relatives and acquaintances alike.
In the lead-up to the festival of lights, generations of women and children gather in family kitchens and prepare mithai by hand, and as the pile of pretty sweets rises, excitement grows. Although there are hundreds of different types of mithais, they tend to all have a ghee, sugar and a milk base. The sweets are flavoured with fragrant spices – think cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg – and, at Diwali in particular, more expensive ingredients such as pistachios, almonds and cashews. Pricey, vibrant saffron and edible gold or silver leaf also help to transform them into gleaming special-occasion treats.
A few favourite mithais
Usually made with milk or milk powder, sugar and ghee, barfi can be flavoured with a whole range of extras, from almonds, coconut and gram flour to chocolate, pistachios, sesame seeds and water chestnuts. Decorated with crushed cardamom seeds, silvered nuts or glossy silver leaf, and sliced into dainty triangles, squares or diamond shapes, this fudge-like confectionary is a must during Diwali. It is also one of the easiest mithai to make if you fancy preparing it at home.
Once again, there are countless varieties of halwa, the rich, beautifully moist, sticky-sweet dessert that’s popular not just throughout India, but in the Middle East, too. Depending on the recipe and region, halwa is customised with all manner of ingredients: various dals (moong dal or channa lentils are popular), different vegetables (grated carrot is most common), dried fruit, ground nuts and more.
Spherical laddoos are made from different types of flour roasted with a generous amount of ghee until the flour loses its raw taste, takes on a lovely toasted flavour and starts to bind together. This mix is sweetened with sugar or jaggery, flavoured with spices and mixed with nuts and dried fruit before being rolled into plump rounds. Coconut laddoos – made with fresh coconut and infused with warming, aromatic cardamom – are very much associated with southern India, besan (chickpea flour) laddoos have strong ties with Diwali and dark, aromatic atta laddoos are loved in the Punjab region.
For a mouthful of sheer indulgence, glossy gulab jamun might just be the most decadent mithai of them of all. These little orbs are made from a milk dough that’s deep-fried until golden brown, before being bathed in an intensely sweet sugar syrup and rose water. If you’re a fan of American doughnuts or Arabic luqmat al qadi, you’re likely to enjoy these.
Vibrant, bright orange swirls of crunchy, freshly fried and soaked jalebi are believed to have originated in ancient Persia, but are now regarded as a classic Diwali treat.
These pretty sweets do require a certain amount of dexterity on the part of the cook: the fermented jalebi paste is transferred to a piping bag and the spiral pattern is “drawn” into a pan of hot oil. Once cooked on both sides, they are dipped in warm sugar syrup. Even if you make your own and don’t quite achieve visual perfection, the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-centre texture of these sweets is unlikely to disappoint.
Where to eat this Diwali
Unseen Trails: Indian Festival of Lights
Meena Bazaar, Dubai
There’s no better way to experience Diwali and to fully embrace the delectable world of mithai, than to do so accompanied by the Unseen Trails team. Their Festival of Lights food tour takes place next Friday, when participants will wander the meandering alleyways of Meena Bazaar immersing themselves in the sights, sounds and tastes of Diwali festivities. You’ll also get the opportunity to sample plenty of delicious mithais along the way.
For more information, go to www.unseentrails.com/diwali
Mint Leaf of London
Emirates Financial Towers, DIFC, Dubai
If you’re after a Diwali meal with a contemporary slant, along with great views and a friendly welcome to boot, Mint Leaf of London delivers just that. Highlights from its specially devised eight-course Diwali menu include executive chef Pradeep Khullar’s beetroot kabab with saffron chutney and an innovative-sounding watermelon slider.
The Diwali menu is available from Monday to Saturday and costs Dh250 per person. For information, visit www.mintleaf.ae
The Hub at The Mall, World Trade Centre, Abu Dhabi
With its sleek modern interior and somewhat tricky-to-categorise food (we’re going for quirky, modern Indian fusion with an intriguing twist), Tamba is a restaurant that gets people talking. Its 12-dish Diwali menu certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front either, and features the likes of watermelon, arugula and tomato chutney with cheese snow, multicoloured root vegetable chips and dips, pan-fried sea bream with caramelised lemon and mumtaz, an iced halwa confection featuring strawberry parfait dressed with a rose and pistachio reduction, and finished with confit fruit.
The Diwali menu is available from Sunday until October 31 and costs Dh195 per person. For more information, visit www.tambarestaurant.com
Various locations across the UAE
Something of an institution in the region, Chhappan Bhog is popular year-round for its Indian sweets and vegetarian street-food-style dishes. But during Diwali, this spot really comes into its own, with a truly impressive selection of handcrafted, regally presented mithai boxes intended for gifting. You can either purchase one of its ready made-up options or create your own selection pack from the dazzling array of sweets. Chhappan Bhog means “56 delights” and is named after a Hindu feast of 56 dishes offered to Lord Krishna.
For more information or to order online, visit www.chhappanbhog.me
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai
For a Diwali meal at the higher end of the fine-dining spectrum, Amala at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel gets our vote. The restaurant feels sumptuous and has a special-occasion vibe while the Mughal-influenced food is consistently good, and the service is friendly and well-informed. Considering all that, the clincher is the price: its set-course Diwali menu features an impressive amount of choice and costs Dh185. Oh, and did we mention that its gulab jamun is capable of inducing sighs of joy?
The Diwali menu is available next Thursday and Friday and costs Dh185 per person. For more information, visit www.jumeirah.com and search for Zabeel Saray