Monday, November 12, 2012

Diwali: Indian Festival of Lights & Cuisine

Food always plays an essential part in the festivities of all the world's cultures, and Diwali, the 'Festival of Lights' celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs is no exception. This year, the five-day festival takes place from November 11-15. Diwali is a contraction of the word Deepavali, which means 'row of lights' in Sanskrit, and celebrates the victory of the Good over the Evil and Light over Darkness. It has a major religious significance for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains alike, not only in India, but also for Indians living abroad. 

Galub Jamun, the delicious sticky ball-shaped dessert in sweet syrup

During Diwali, families gather and enjoy lots of delicious foods and delicate sweets, exchange gifts and light fireworks. Traditional sweets, known as mithai, are in heavy demand during the festival, including Karanji, a pastry stuffed with dried fruit, semolina and coconut, Laddoos, ball-shaped sweets, Puran Pol, sweet stuffed flatbread, Poori, fried bread, Gulab Jamun, the delicious sticky ball-shaped dessert, kheer, which is Indian rice pudding and Jalebi, a deep-fried chewy dessert which looks a lot like a crazy pretzel.

Diyas, small clay oil lamps are illuminated to celebrate the return 
of the Hindu god, Lord Rama, to his kingdom after 14 years in exile

In both the city and countryside, small clay oil lamps, or diyas, are traditionally placed at the thresholds of homes, shops and offices throughout the five-day festival to celebrate the legend of the return of the Hindu god, Lord Rama, to his kingdom after 14 years in exile. According to Hindu mythology everyone lit oil lamps along the road to welcome Lord Rama home. Diwali has come to symbolize the illumination of the soul and attainment of higher knowledge.

Rangolis are typically created with materials, including colored rice, 
dry flour, coloured sand or even flower petals

Hindus in cities and villages also believe that during Diwali the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, will visit their homes if they are lit, clean and beautifully decorated, so windows and doors are left open to let the goddess in and homes are cleaned from top to bottom. Also, brightly-colored rangolis are drawn using fingers on the ground at the entrances to homes and offices. These geometric designs are usually symbols of nature and their purpose is to welcome guests and to encourage Lakshmi inside. For Diwali this year, although not Indians, we decided to embrace the spirit of the festival by lighting candles around the house, playing some sitar music CDs and enjoying a delicious homemade Indian feast of Grilled Tandoori Chicken, Indian Spicy Potatoes with Turmeric & Cumin and Eggplant Bharta.

Grilled Tandoori Chicken
Serves 4

4 chicken breasts, bone in and skin on
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1/2 tsp cardamom powder
1 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp lemon juice & 4 lemon wedges
2 cups yoghurt
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp chickpea flour
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
3 tbsp melted ghee

Pat dry the chicken breasts and score the tops with a 3 or 4 deep cuts. In a large bowl, combine the yoghurt, ginger, garlic, cardamom, chili powder, garam masala, oil, gram flour, lemon juice and salt and mix well to form a loose paste. Add the chicken breasts to the mixture, tossing thoroughly to ensure they're well coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 4-5 hours, to allow the chicken to marinate.

To grill, place the chicken breasts on a pre-heated BBQ and cook 10-15 minutes over medium-high heat. Turn them over and baste with melted ghee, and continue cooking for an additional 10-15 minutes until the chicken is evenly cooked and has nice grill marks. Serve with grilled lemon wedges.

Indian Spicy Potatoes with Turmeric & Cumin
Serves 4

1 1/2 lb yukon gold potatoes
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1/8 tsp asafetida
1/2 tsp whole black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1/4 tsp chili powder
3/4 tsp salt

Cut the potatoes into a 1/2-inch dice. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the asafetida, and a second later, the mustard seeds and then the cumin seeds. Now add the potatoes and stir once or twice. Sprinkle in the turmeric, and continue to cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are nicely browned and almost done. After 15 minutes, add the chili powder and salt. Stir and cook another 2 minutes.

Indian Eggplant Bharta
Serves 6-8

2 large eggplant
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 fresh hot green chili, seeded and finely chopped
3 tbsp cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 small can tomato paste
1 tsp salt
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ghee 
2 tsp garam masala

Preheat oven to 375°F. Trim the ends off the eggplant and cut lengthwise into eighths. Place skin side down on a baking sheet and roast for 1 hour, until the flesh is browned. Remove the cooked eggplant from the oven and place on a sheet of tin foil, overlapping the slices into a mound. Seal the packet tightly, and set aside. 

Using a small food processor, blend the onion, ginger and garlic into a smooth paste. Add 3 tablespoons of water and continue to blend for one minute.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Pour in the paste from the blender and add the turmeric. Sauté this mixture stirring frequently for about 20-30 minutes. The paste will not brown but will reduce slightly. Add the green chili and cilantro and stir for 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove the eggplant from the foil. It will be very soft and tender. and coarsely chop into bite size pieces. Add the chopped eggplant to the sauce and cook for 10-15 minutes, seasoning with lemon juice, salt, garam masala and dollop of ghee for flavour. To serve, transfer the Eggplant Bharta to a warm dish and garnish with chopped cilantro. It can also be kept warm over a very low heat until required.

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