Cooking School

Diwali: How to celebrate the Festival of Lights

By: Nadine Sharon Anglin

© Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©

Cooking School

Diwali: How to celebrate the Festival of Lights

By: Nadine Sharon Anglin
The South Asian festival known as Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is a joyous five-day celebration akin to the various harvest festivals held throughout the world. Not unlike the Western traditions associated with Christmas, Diwali is a time for gathering with family members and friends, feasting on indulgent meals and sweeping away the trials and tribulations of the current year in order to welcome the new year with clean and open hearts and spirits.

Diwali origins and customs
Diwali is the biggest and most widely celebrated South Asian festival. It is observed by various religious groups, including Hindus and Jains in South Asia, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as by those of South Asian heritage living around the world.

Various traditions and customs are observed across the Indian regions, and the holiday also incorporates various legends. For some, Diwali celebrates the return of King Rama from exile following his triumphant battle against an evil king, while for others it is a time to honour Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

The word "Diwali" itself, however, loosely translates to "row of lights." During the festival, homes and streets are decorated with small clay oil lamps ultimately symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.

During Diwali it is customary to completely clean the home, purchase new clothes, forgive adversaries and forget past transgressions, as well as to hope for prosperity in the months ahead.

"We would all go to the temple for prayers and eat amazing food from the temple kitchen. My brother would light giant fireworks for us to enjoy and the sky would be filled with the lights for hours because everyone would be on the rooftops celebrating," recounts Bal Arneson, host of the cooking show Spice Goddess.

Diwali food traditions
While many people refrain from eating meat during the holiday, vegetarian dishes such as curries and lentils are enjoyed. However, sweets are one of the most well-known elements associated with the holiday.

"Weeks before, my mom would make all these sweets. They're very labour-intensive, so she would get together with her friends and have these marathon sessions making them. Then they'd split them up and when you visited friends you'd share them," says Preena Chauhan, Indian cooking instructor and owner of Arvinda's, artfully created Indian spice blends.

"I make gulab jabuns at home," says Arneson. "They're like mini doughnuts, and they're my kids' absolute favourite."

Every family puts their own spin on the snack-sized eats, and though they are delicious, they're very much seen as a special-occasion treat.

"In my home the favourite was the shakarpara," says Chauhan. "You would only ever have them during Diwali, but after a couple of bites you would instantly be reminded of that time of the year."
Different types of sweets
Here is a breakdown of some of the most popular treats eaten during Diwali.

Ghatiya: Deep-fried chickpea flour noodles with spices. These noodles look similar to Chinese noodles, but have a completely different texture. You can find them premade in Indian grocery stores.

Chevda: A deep-fried snack food consisting of potato sticks, raisins, peanuts and spices.

Gulab jabun: Milk-based round doughnut-like balls simmered in a saffron syrup and served warm. These are commonly served in many Indian restaurants.

Barfi and ladoos: Various milk-based sweets made with ghee (clarified butter), nuts and spices, and with flavours such as pistachio, chocolate, coconut and mango.

Shakarpara: All-purpose flour sweetened with sugar syrup and ghee or oil with sesame seeds, then deep-fried and cut into diamond shapes.

Ghugharas: Gujarati pastry dumplings stuffed with sweetened semolina, nuts and spices, then deep-fried.

Matiya: Deep-fried Gujarati crispy bread made from moong dal (mung beans).

Sutarferni: All-purpose flour dough turned into fine noodles and then deep-fried. When cooked, the noodles look like a bird's nest and are topped with sugar and pistachios.

Cranberry Almond Chai Spiced Ladoos
(This recipe has not been tested by the Canadian Living Test Kitchen)

Chauhan puts her own spin on traditional Indian ladoos, incorporating cranberries and significantly reducing the amount of fat traditionally found in the snack.

"Ladoos are known to contain a lot of ghee and can be quite sweet and heavy. This recipe is a healthy version of a ladoo, but tastes like the real deal," says Chauhan. "I use cranberries in these as they are red, which is an auspicious colour for Diwali."

• 1 cup organic almond butter
• 1/2 cup raw honey
• 1/2 cup almonds, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup flaxseeds or hemp seeds
• 1/4 cup dried cranberries or raisins
• 1/4 cup dates, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup dry unsweetened coconut plus an extra 1/2 cup for dusting
• 1/4 cup cocoa powder
• 1 tbsp ginger powder
• 2 tsp orange zest


Add almond butter to a medium bowl and mix well. If consistency is stiff, warm slightly in microwave or on stovetop.
 Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill in refrigerator for 15 to 20 minutes.

Once chilled, roll mixture into balls slightly smaller than walnut size.
 Place remaining coconut in a small bowl for dusting. Dust each ball with coconut to garnish. Store in refrigerator.

Yield: 40 pieces

Recipe courtesy of Preena Chauhan.
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Cooking School

Diwali: How to celebrate the Festival of Lights