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What to eat for Diwali, the Indian festival of lights

The holiday Diwali, commonly known as the festival of lights, is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world. Fireworks, golden-lit electric lamps or ghee-laden wicked candles light up streets, doors and sidewalks to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness and goodness over evil. Diwali is also celebrated by some Hindus especially to pray to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity (the day after Diwali marks a new fiscal year for many Indians).

There are regional differences in how the holiday is celebrated, food-wise and otherwise, and the breadth and style of cuisines shows the vastness of how the food culture celebrates this national holiday.

More: Go to an Indian restaurant, and order pani puri as soon as possible

Here is just one sample menu for an elaborate day of Diwali feasting:

Snacks are often made with ghee (clarified butter), sugar, a few spices and whole-wheat flour or puffed rice. Chickpea flour is often the main ingredient, making some of these naturally gluten-free.

  • Shakarparra — deep-fried crisps with coconut powder served with chutney
  • Chevdo — roasted rice flakes with spices and dried fruit
  • Pakoras — batter-fried vegetables, kind of like Indian tempura
  • Mutthiya — fried dumplings made from bottle gourd or calabash
  • Ghatiya — fried strips of graham flour dough

Main dishes often include the following, which may look familiar to those of you who are already fans of Indian cuisine:

Desserts/sweets, also known as mithai, are often milk-based in some way or form and sometimes cooked with grains. Many of the sweets are deep-fried, often in ghee. Spices like saffron, cardamom and cinnamon are common in sweets, as are ingredients like coconut and fig and even vegetables cooked with sugar and ghee made into halvah. Expensive ingredients like pistachios and almonds are saved for Diwali.

  • Coconut burfi — fudge-like confection made with cream or sweetened condensed milk and coconut
  • Gulab jamun — spongy, fried milk dumplings in a rosewater and saffron syrup
  • Ras malai — Paneer cheese dumplings served soaked in a sweet, creamy sauce
  • Ghughara — fried pastries stuffed with nuts, sugar and spices
  • Halvah — a dense, sweet confection popular not just in India but throughout the Middle East; there are endless varieties made from everything from carrots to sesame seeds
  • Jalebi — similar to funnel cakes, soaked in saffron sauce and then dried to a crispy texture
  • Kheer — rice pudding

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Every Diwali, my mom here in the U.S. asks me several weeks before what Diwali snacks and sweets I would like her to make for me. (My favorites are mutthiya, ghatiya, and her specialty: chevdo.)

Sweets are eaten several times during the day. That may not sound out of place since in the West, we celebrate the Christmas holiday season for six weeks straight with cookies, pies and cakes. But in India, sweets are generally not regularly created or consumed and bakeries are hard to come by unless it’s wedding season or Diwali. During those seasons, the mithaiwalas (sweets producers) are busy.

Probably the easiest way to try these Diwali specialties is to try them at a restaurant. Look up a higher-end Indian restaurant rather than your usual cheap takeout. It’s worth the extra expense to try something new. If you don’t live near any Indian groceries, which are sure to sell traditional snacks and sweets, you can order them from online stores like Sukhadia’s and Rajbhog (the latter takes a moment to load — be patient, it’s worth it).

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

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