The Desserts of Diwali
Move over, Canadian thanksgiving, and make room for Diwali — one of the world’s most beloved and widely celebrated autumn festivals. Fittingly known as ‘the festival of lights’, Diwali is a time when families light scores of diyas (clay oil lamps) outside their homes to light the way for the gods, and to bathe their neighbourhoods in an auspicious glow that represents prosperity and goodness.
For foodies, it’s an especially thrilling time of year. Ornately decorated gift boxes of mithai, or sweets, are exchanged, and the jalebis, laddoos, gulab jamun, and mysore pak within them quickly devoured. During Diwali, the season’s desserts reign supreme, says Michelle Peters-Jones, author of the Indian-Canadian-British food fusion blog The Tiffin Box. Not only are these desserts delicious, but they bring people together.
“The food is really the crucial ingredient in what makes Diwali such a pan-Indian festival,” says the food writer, who grew up savouring her grandmother’s homemade sweets in the coastal Indian city of Mangalore.
“When you go to someone’s party, or when you go to visit people [during Diwali], you take sweets or food. And in general, in Indian culture, food is a huge part of our culture, simply because it represents love.”
While Diwali is a religious festival primarily celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists, it is also a cultural one that is observed across India and throughout the world. Diwali signifies the triumph of good over evil and it is a time for welcoming wealth and prosperity into one’s life.
This year in India, it begins on October 22 and ends on October 26. Here in Alberta, Diwali starts as soon as the jalebis and gulab jamun hit the fry oil or ghee (clarified butter).
From their downtown Edmonton location, Khazana Restaurant has been serving North Indian cuisine to Edmontonians since 1998. Modelled after the Bukhara restaurant of dining fame in Delhi, Khazana specializes in dishes prepared in their tandoors, or clay pots, cooked before a live audience.
A Diwali menu promises a plethora of flavours, textures, and aromas. What most of its desserts have in common, says Khazana’s owner, Mehaik Bhasin, are significant prep time and short shelf-lives. For Karthikeyan Stalin, the owner and chef behind Calgary-based Indian eatery, Masala Bhavan, respect for the process is imperative: “When it comes to these deserts, you have to have patience to make them.”
To celebrants, these qualities are simply evidence of the spirit of hospitality embedded within the season. Diwali is a time when painstaking preparation and work goes into making desserts destined to be given away.
“They're not your typical desserts of Canadian origin, where you can, you know, bake them and just keep them,” says Bhasin. “These things get stale, so you kind of want to eat them all, and they’re best to eat on the day that you make them.”
Ready to dive into the desserts of Diwali? Get started with these four sweet treats this October.
Kick off your Diwali dessert tour with gajar ka halwa, or carrot halwa. Traditionally prepared in a heavy-bottomed pot, carrot halwa is the product of simmering grated carrots, full-fat milk, sugar, ghee, and cardamom powder, topped with chopped nuts. This thick, carrot-y pudding is one of Peters-Jones’ favourite Diwali desserts to prepare.
“It’s got the vegetable flavour of carrot, but it also has that fragrance of spices like cardamom, rosewater, saffron and everything else in it as well,” she says. “It’s sweet, almost glazed, and absolutely gorgeous.”
Peters-Jones likes to incorporate raisins and saffron threads into her carrot halwa, and pairs the dessert with a home-made, slightly whipped, and flavoured cream. From scratch, she says, it takes a long time to make. But carrot halwa is one of the longest-lasting Diwali desserts with a shelf-life of about one week in the fridge. Commercially made halwa, she adds, tends to last longer.
A cube-shaped confection said to hail from the southern Indian city of Mysore, mysore pak is a delicious, cookie-like sweet often enjoyed, seldom left uneaten, at Diwali parties. This dessert, traditionally concocted from a boiled, then cooled, mixture of sugar, gram flour, water, cardamom, and ghee, is addictively crunchy and buttery to the taste.
“You can bite into it, it’s crunchy and it [has] a kind of unique flavour,” says Stalin.
It’s a taste the restauranteur simply can’t get enough of. Neither can his customers when, come Diwali, Masala Bhavan sells mithai boxes packed with the crunchy dessert, as well as gulab jamun and jalebis. To Stalin, the Diwali’s confections make the season particularly special — so while mysore pak may be delicious on its own, it’s absolute magic when paired with other festival favourites.
“Without the desserts, Diwali isn’t [as much] fun,” says Stalin. “The desserts are a must.”
Among the most tantalizing of Diwali confections are gulab jamun, deep-fried milk balls that, to the untrained eye, resemble perfectly unblemished Timbits. Kneaded, then formed, from a dough that combines full-cream milk powder, sugar, flour, spices, and yogurt, the dessert is made complete by a crumbled nut topping and the sticky syrup in which it’s soaked. The syrup, made from saffron, cardamom, and rose water, gives gulab jamun their sweet and distinctly floral flavour that fans describe as nothing short of addictive.
Traditionally, gulab jamun are served warm. But at Khazana, Bhasin’s chefs serve the confection in a martini glass topped with ice cream, making it the restauranteur’s favourite dish and the one she’s quickest to recommend to customers.
“I love the mixture of the hot gulab jamun and cold ice cream, the way we serve it,” says Bhasin. “It’s something that nobody really has.”
It’s the dessert that inspired Canadian-Indian singer Tesher and pop R&B artist Jason Derulo’s hit remixed tune, Jalebi Baby, in 2021. Jalebis are whipped up from a batter of wheat flour, sugar, syrup, almonds, pistachios, and ghee. They become crispy spirals when that batter, shaped into sizzling swirls by a baking cone or squeeze bottle, meet the piping hot oil or ghee of a frying pan.
Like gulab jamun, jalebis are made complete by a warm sugar syrup and sometimes topped with crushed pistachios or almonds. Jalebis have a short shelf-life, says Bhasin, so it’s best to eat them fresh.
“If you put your jalebi in the fridge, it's just not going to be the same,” says Bhasin. “You want to [eat them] within that window of freshness, within two days.”
Kheer, or wet pudding, is an Indian staple eaten year-round, meaning that it always tends to find its way into a Diwali party. Rice kheer, or rice pudding, traditionally concocted from short-grain rice, sugar, milk, cardamom, nuts, and rose water, is especially popular during the festival. That has partly to do with rice being a particularly auspicious, or favourable, ingredient, says Bhasin.
Some prefer their rice kheer chilled, others like it hot out of the pot. However you like it, know that to enjoy this dessert during Diwali is to find a new favourite staple sweet to sustain you throughout the year.