Diwali is my food highlight of the year. Celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, the festival of light falls on 26 October this year and is a wonderfully chaotic event filled with family, friends, prayers, loads of fireworks and – my favourite bit – a huge amount of feasting.
Just as each faith has its own reasons for celebrating Diwali, each family has its own traditional Diwali foods. The universal turkey-and-sprouts fare traditionally served for Christmas dinner has no equivalent in the five days of Diwali festivities. But celebrations do have at least one thing in common – plates brimming with delicious treats are never far. Leicester and London host some of the largest Diwali celebrations outside the Indian subcontinent, making this the perfect time to sample a huge variety of Indian cuisine at its best, whether you celebrate Diwali or not.
"As in most Indian homes, food is at the centre of our culture and family get-togethers, and as such, it forms the focal point for Diwali celebrations," says Karam Sethi, co-owner and head chef of Trishna, an upmarket London Indian restaurant linked to the eponymous seafood specialists in Mumbai.
In previous years, Sethi's Diwali specialty at the restaurant has been raan – a leg of lamb marinated overnight using whole spices, Kashmiri chillies, yoghurt, ginger and garlic that is initially cooked over coal "to give it a smokier flavour", then finished off in a low oven for around six hours. Sethi, who grew up in Britain, describes this dish as a northern specialty inspired by the cuisine favoured in Delhi, where his parents are from and where much of his extended family remains.
But as new generations of Indian families grow up in the UK, Western tastes are increasingly reflected in the changing landscapes of Diwali food. This year, Sethi has decided to add a new twist to his fare by incorporating autumnal British ingredients into his menu, achieving unusual dishes such as tandoori red leg partridge, guinea fowl tikka and peri peri grouse (Goan food has a strong Portuguese influence). "As winter draws in and nights get darker in the UK, these kinds of food have a warming and celebratory feel about them which is perfect for Diwali," he says.
Although eating out is popular during Diwali, families mostly prepare food at home ready for guests to pop in to chat, exchange gifts, play cards and watch colourful firework displays. At Sethi's parents' home in Finchley, lamb is also a favourite ingredient in his other signature Diwali dish – biryani. "Biryani is considered to be a very lavish dish when it's done right," he says. "In India, cooks would normally put a whole goat in with the rice, but a leg of lamb is good enough for us.
"When we cook the biryani we seal the top of the pot with dough to keep the rice moist. It comes out of the oven looking like a huge balloon and when you cut that open, the smell is unbelievable. There will literally be a jostling queue at the table for it."
In testament to the diversity of Diwali celebrations, Sethi's meaty meals are completely different to the sumptuous vegetarian fare on offer at my parents' house, where my mum – who is Gujarati, Hindu, originally from Mumbai and a strict vegetarian – is head honcho in the kitchen.
After the pooja ritual in the morning, huge saucepans are filled with steaming toor dal, garam masala-spiced aubergines, cauliflower saak (fried with mustard seeds and chilli powder) and plenty more. Simple to make in large quantities and easy to keep warm, these are perfect for providing a steady stream of food for the always-indefinite numbers of guests and they easily succeed in pleasing the carnivores of the family, my brother and my British-born dad.
One restaurant that knows how to achieve delicious food on an enormous scale is Shayona, which specialises in a wide range of regional Indian cuisine. It is located opposite the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, an elaborate Hindu temple in Neasden in north London, which is expecting more than 60,000 visitors over two Diwali days this year. In Hindu households, specially prepared food (Prasad) is always offered to the deities first and this year the Neasden temple will be serving a world-record breaking 1,200 vegetarian dishes for the gods, making the elaborate darshan (display of the deities) a breathtaking sight.
Shayona is mainly frequented by Hindu devotees and Diwali is its busiest time of the year. "We expect to serve nearly 30,000 people in one-and-a-half days of celebrations at the temple," the head chef Sunil Kumar says. Although the restaurant itself will be shut for the holiday, it will provide Mumbai-style street food from stalls outside the temple, including more than 3,000 dhabelis (veggie burgers) and 3,000 portions of pau bhaji (a Gujarati dish of thick vegetable curry garnished with raw onion and coriander eaten in a bread roll – one of my mum's favourites).
But the ultimate pièce de résistance of all Diwali cuisine has to be the towering arrays of neon-coloured sweets. In the three weeks leading up to Diwali, Shayona estimates that it will have sold around 25 tonnes of handmade sweets, from year-round favourites such as barfi (made from condensed milk and sugar, it comes in hundreds of different varieties) and jalebi (deep-fried batter soaked in sugary syrup) to Diwali specialties such as suterfeni (sweet shredded dough topped with pistachios) and ghoogra (crescent moon-shaped dumplings with a sweet cardamom-spiced filling). With so many delicious dishes to try, it's a good job Diwali goes on for five days.
Sweet treats how to make suji halwa
"Sweets are the absolute must for Diwali," my mum says. My aunt Renuka prepares this fragrant dish as an offering for the Hindu deities, which also makes for a delicious blessing for us when the prayers are finished. There are hundreds of different kinds of halwa (carrot is very popular), but this is our favourite.
Preparation time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
175g ghee (found in most supermarkets)
175g fine semolina
25g chopped almonds
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
100g caster sugar
(25g desiccated coconut and 50g of soaked sultanas are optional)
Melt the ghee in a frying pan over a low heat. Add the semolina and stir continuously for 10 minutes. Add the water, then add half of the cardamom and almonds (plus all of the coconut and sultanas, if used). When the water is fully absorbed, add the sugar, remembering to stir continuously. When the ingredients are fully mixed, remove from heat. Sprinkle the rest of the almonds and cardamom on top; serve warm.