x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Diwali is a feast of delights

We talk to people about their favourite Diwali dishes and get chefs' tips on how to prepare them.

Jalebi sweets.
Jalebi sweets.

Each year as Diwali approaches, certain streets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi undergo something of a transformation. In Bur Dubai and Karama in particular, this begins gradually, a week or so before the festival begins. By the time the sun sets this evening, practically every hotel and apartment building will be lit up with a chaotic, twinkling mass of multicoloured lights.

Known as the festival of light, Diwali or Deepavali (row of lights) is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, but the legends associated with the event vary from region to region. Some celebrate the return of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, to Rama's kingdom after 14 years of exile; others praise Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; while in Bengal, people offer thanks to the goddess Kali. Despite these differences, the overriding message remains the same: Diwali marks the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, hence the tradition for lighting earthenware oil lamps, known as diyas.

Darshini Govindaraju was born and brought up in Malaysia, but her father is from Ramanathapuram, in the south of India, which means that for her, Deepavali commemorates the killing of the evil demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna.

She says that during her three years spent living in Bur Dubai, the annually appearing festive lights were a real anchor: "You can become so wrapped up in your own work world, but when you see those lights, you end up smiling to yourself and memories of home run through your mind. Bur Dubai in many ways kept me rooted - it reminded me of where I belong."

For all involved, the emphasis during the five-day festival is on prayer, spending time with family and friends, fireworks, the exchange of gifts and, of course, feasting.

Many of Govindaraju's memories of Deepavalis past are interwoven with tales of food and family. "When I was growing up, we always had an open-house concept, often cooking for 150-odd people, who would arrive anytime between 9am and midnight," she says.

"On the day itself, we would wake up at 4am to have an oil bath, before heading to the temple. After that, it was back to Granny's to set up the buffet line, spread coloured rice over the floor and decorate the house. Then the entertaining of friends and family would really begin."

If Diwali is most synonymous with bright lights, then mithais (sweets) also play an integral role. Garima Arora is originally from Mumbai and has been living in Dubai for the past seven months. "Food is an inherent part of all celebrations and festivals in India, be it weddings, birthdays or religious occasions," she explains, before adding that "it is during Diwali that the sweet tooth goes into overdrive and traditional Indian sweets like ladoos and pedas are sold in their tons. This is mainly because it is considered auspicious to begin all religious activities with a sweet offering to god, but at the end of the day it's holiday season and people also enjoy eating sugar."

This opinion is seconded by Krishnakumar Sankaran, the owner of Aryass Gourmet Veg, a chain of vegetarian restaurants specialising in south Indian cooking, with locations in Dubai and Sharjah. He says: "Diwali is a festival that is all about sweets. It is a joyful time for people to gather together and in the Hindu calendar, it marks the start of the new year. Food plays a very important role in the celebrations; Diwali without sweets and savouries cannot be imagined!"

Aryass Gourmet Veg offers a range of handmade, traditional sweets throughout the year, but Sankaran says that in the lead-up to Diwali, sales figures increase dramatically, from approximately 55kg a day to 250kg. In the Bur Dubai outlet at the moment, display cabinets are piled high with various treats: bite-sized pieces of barfi (a sort of fudge) decorated with silver leaf, coils of jalebi (fried batter made from flour and yogurt and soaked in sugar syrup), pedas (dough made from sweet, thickened milk) dusted with crushed pistachios and halwa (a dense sweet made from milk and ghee) studded with fruit. Prices for the sweet selection boxes start at Dh27.

Sankaran was born in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu and grew up in a very traditional south Indian family. At Diwali time, he remembers "shopping for new clothes and accessories, preparing traditional and rare sweet delicacies, bursting crackers, playing with different coloured fireworks and spending intimate moments with my parents".

Sanjay Nair has similar memories. "As a child growing up in Delhi, the two things that I used to look forward to most were the fireworks and the sweets.

"Diwali is very special to me; it basically marks the peak of the festive season and is a time for the family to get together, for exchanging gifts and visiting festive fairs. I normally visit India then, as it is when most of my close friends also make the annual holiday back and it's a great time to catch up," he adds.

This year, however, he will be celebrating in Dubai. "We are planning an Indian barbecue around the pool. There will be a lot of tikkas, kebabs and grills - a feast!"

Govindaraju, meanwhile, is very much hoping that the package containing murukku - a crispy fried snack made from lentil and rice flour - sent specially by her father through DHL will arrive in time. Mohammad Hafeez Qurshi, the head chef of Chutneys restaurant at the Movenpick hotel in Bur Dubai, is taking no such chances; he will be cooking one of his favourite Diwali dishes, shahi tukra ("a piece of the Nawabi opulence") at home. For those who would like to do the same, the recipe follows.

Shahi Tukra (bread pudding)

Prepared by Mohammad Hafeez Qureshi, the head chef of Chutneys restaurant at the Movenpick hotel in Bur Dubai

(Serves 4)

2 litres milk

4 slices milk bread

2g saffron

vegetable oil, for deep frying

8 cardamom pods

150g sugar

For the garnish:

silver leaf

20g shelled unsalted pistachios, chopped

2 tbsp runny honey

Pour one litre of milk into a thick heavy-based saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the liquid has reduced to 100ml - this takes some time, approximately 90 minutes.

Using a mould or cutter with a diameter of approximately 8cm, cut a circle out from each slice of bread. Tip the saffron into a small bowl, pour over 200ml of warm water and leave to infuse.

Half fill a saucepan with vegetable oil, add the cardamom pods and place over a medium heat. When bubbles start to form around the edges, carefully add the rounds of bread to the pan. Gently fry the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp and golden. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Pour the remaining litre of milk, half the saffron water and the sugar into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add the crispy bread circles and leave to simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove the bread from the pan, shaking off any excess liquid.

Drizzle half a tablespoon of honey over the base of each serving plate, then place a circle of the saffron-infused bread in the centre of each one. Top each piece of bread with a layer of the thickened reduced milk and a sprinkling of chopped pistachios. Drizzle over the remaining saffron water and serve immediately.

Cashew nut barfi

Prepared by Robin Gomes, the executive chef of Citymax hotels in Dubai

200g water

400g caster sugar

800g ground cashew nuts

tsp cardamom essence

To garnish:

silver leaf

sugar syrup

shaved coconut

Pour the water into a saucepan, place over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Add the sugar, bring to the boil once more and cook, stirring frequently, for seven to eight minutes until the mixture is sticky and quite thick.

Gradually add the ground cashew nuts, stirring continually, until you have a thick, well-blended paste. Add the cardamom essence and tip the mixture on to a greased tray or large plate.

Leave to cool, then roll the dough out into a large rectangle, approximately 1cm thick. Decorate the barfi with the silver leaf and cut into small pieces. Serve garnished with shaved coconut and drizzled with sugar syrup.