From a simple agrarian festival to the festival of excess, if the spirit of Diwali has changed, so have rituals surrounding festive foods. And this year, the emphasis seems to be on ‘healthy’ bingeing
Food, religion and rituals go hand in hand in most ancient cultures, but more so in India—where many of these traditions survive till date—than anywhere else in the world. It is inevitable then that festivals that mark important moments in the agrarian calendar see concentrated bouts of ritualistic eating of foods dubbed “auspicious”, which are then mandatorily prepared and consumed in homes across regions and communities.
Diwali, one of the biggest celebrations. In the subcontinent is, of course, also a harvest festival. It falls at the end of the kharif season, when the paddy crop comes home. Thus we find that it is rice, in all its forms, that assumes a large ritualistic significance as far as all the feasting goes during the five-day fest. When we were growing up, and perhaps even now in the smaller towns of northern India, the buying of kheel (unthrashed rice) and batashe was a much anticipated event. The sugar often took the form of nicely moulded animals/figures that children could admire and play with before they were placed with the diyas, worshiped and finally eaten. If kheel (that you later dry roast in a pan, and season with rock salt for an instant, low-cal snack) defined rituals in the north, it took on the form of the flattened chivda/poha in the west—fried to crisp, mixed with bits of coconut (another ritualistically auspicious food; Lakshmi is seen holding it so its Diwali connection is inevitable), with nuts, tempered with turmeric (a spice with so much religious significance in Hindu homes) and curry leaves—to give us another delicious Diwali staple.
And then there is kheer, one of the most popular celebratory dishes across the subcontinent, a basic milk and rice pudding that can be really elevated to a sublime delicacy if cooked on a slow fire for a long enough time. It’s a must-eat food for Bhai Duj just as delicacies like meetha bhat (sweetened rice) and the various murukkus, chaklis and ribbon pakoras, et al, that float around during this festive time.
If rice is the big ingredient for Diwali, there are other quaint traditions of eating too. Yams, for instance, are supposed to be eaten on the main Lakshmi Puja night to usher