Priya DasSarma's childhood memories of celebrating Diwali in India are bright and happy, filled with firecrackers, lanterns and many, many sweets.
The Ellicott City resident's family moved around when she was a child, bouncing between India, Europe and the United States, but she's held on to those memories of light and sugar.
"From a child's perspective, it's all about the sweets," she says with a laugh, recalling her family's fondness for a milky, nutty treat called halva.
Like many Hindus in the United States, DasSarma celebrates with her family, filling their home with light and delicious treats.
Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is the five-day Hindu festival of lights that this year begins Nov. 3. The holiday is often associated with India but it is also observed in countries across South Asia. It covers a lot of bases, including the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the new financial year for Indian businesses.
From a religious standpoint, Diwali honors the goddess Lakshmi, who symbolizes wealth and prosperity. And it celebrates several events, including the return of Rama (the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu) from exile and the death of the demon Narakasura.
If that sounds complicated, it is — even to people who grew up with the holiday.
"When I was trying to explain this to my kids when they were little, they would ask, 'Can't we just have a simple story?' " DasSarma says. "But it's a big country, and there are a lot of different ideas."
To celebrate Diwali, people place small oil lamps called diyas (or, less traditionally, candles) on their roofs, windowsills and even along roads.
"You want to have the brightest, most beautiful, brightly lit house," says DasSarma, explaining that the bright lights are designed to attract Lakshmi — and her prosperity.
In addition to the lights, the celebration includes an element of "rejuvenation" that includes new clothes and cleaning house. And it involves lots of cooking.
"With my mom and grandma, I make all sorts of sweets," says Khushbu Shah, a Burtonsville resident and waitress at Mughal Garden in Mount Vernon. "Everything is bright and everyone cooks a lot of food. It's like Thanksgiving — everyone gets together and cooks a lot."
DasSarma takes her description a step further.
"It's almost like New Year's, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving and Christmas in one," she says, referring to the elements of renewal, light, family dining and gift-giving that wind through all of those holidays.
Traditionally, Diwali is a family and neighborhood holiday in which people stay close to home. However, Hindus in the United States, who might live far from family or from other people celebrating, often improvise.
Several schools and organizations around Baltimore host large gatherings to celebrate Diwali.
"It's a family-oriented holiday. It is more common to have dinner with your close family and visit relatives," says Varun Chokshi, a graduate student in biology and president of the Indian Graduate Students' Association at the Johns Hopkins University. "But since we are students, we organize an event with an Indian dinner to instill the same sense."
The student association's event is more than a simple dinner; it's a party that includes cultural performances, an Indian buffet and post-dinner dancing. This year, 300 people are expected to attend.
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where DasSarma works with her husband, Shiladitya DasSarma, the Indian Association is hosting an event with the lighting of the diya, dinner, dance performances, games and music.
Both parties are open to the public — and the members of both organizations welcome those who haven't celebrated Diwali before.
This year, the DasSarmas will celebrate both with their community at the University of Maryland and also at home — and in the kitchen, where the emphasis will, of course, be on sweets.
"It just boils down to what feels good," says DasSarma. "People like sweets. They bring out niceness, goodness. In any culture, sweet is good."
Priya DasSarma's halva
Halva (or halwa) is a broad term for a dense and sweet pudding-like dessert with many variations across Asia and Africa. Priya DasSarma associates the version her family makes with religious festivities and also with her birthday, because her parents made it to celebrate every year. "There's a whole range of types," she says. "I probably don't know a quarter of them." But she loves her family's interpretation of the confection.
Makes 10 servings
6 cups boiling water
1/4 cup warm milk
1 pinch saffron
1/2 cup ghee (clarified butter) or olive oil
1/4 cup unsalted raw cashews or almond slivers
1/4 cup kishmish (golden raisins)
1 cup suji (semolina/cream of wheat)
3 whole green dried cardamom pods
2 cups sugar
Put 6 cups water in a pan over high heat and bring to a boil.
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the milk until lukewarm (this can also be done in a microwave).
Take the milk off the heat and add saffron. Set aside.
Heat the ghee or oil over medium heat in a karahi (an Indian wok-shaped vessel) or a frying pan. (DasSarma prefers the karahi because its rounded shape makes stirring easy.) Fry the cashews or almonds until they are golden.
Remove the nuts from the pan and set aside.
Add the raisins to the pan and fry briefly until they are plump. Remove from the pan as soon as they plump up; if you cook them too long, they will burst.
Add the suji to the karahi and cook until it turns golden in color, being careful not to burn it.
Add the cardamom to the suji and mix.
Add the boiling water, one cup at a time, and stir until the water is fully absorbed before adding the next cup. The suji will swell and become pliable.
Add the sugar, saffron, milk, nuts and raisins and stir for about five minutes, until the halva starts separating from the sides of the pot. At this point, the dish gets really liquid; depending on your stove and pot, it may require more than five minutes of stirring.
Remove the pot from the heat and let cool for ten minutes before serving.
Khushbu Shah's ghughra
Khushbu Shah, along with her mother and grandmother, make these sweet pastries every year for their Diwali celebration. The sweets are traditional in Gujarat, the northwestern Indian state where Shah's family has roots.
Makes about 20 pastries
2-3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or oil for frying
1/2 cup rawa (cream of wheat)
1/2 cup grated coconut
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cardamom powder
1/2 tablespoon nutmeg powder
1/2 cup chopped almonds
2 cups maida (all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
Pinch of salt
Over medium heat, heat a pan with one tablespoon of ghee. Add rawa and saute until it turns golden brown in color. Once the rawa is cooked, remove it from the heat and transfer it to a bowl.
Add the grated coconut to the heated pan. Fry until the coconut turns light brown. Transfer to the same bowl as the rawa.
Add the sugar, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder and almonds to the rawa and coconut mixture. Mix to combine, then let cool for a few minutes.
In a separate bowl, combine two tablespoons of ghee, maida, cold milk and pinch of salt. Mix ingredients until they form a dough.
Divide the dough into about 20 small balls of equal size. Using a rolling pin, roll them into small, flat rounds.
Place a small amount of rawa stuffing on one round. Fold the round over, making a half moon shape. Seal the edges by twisting the dough with your fingers. Repeat for the rest the rounds.
Fry the ghughra in ghee or oil over low heat for about five minutes on each side, until the pastries are light brown.
Where to shop
Though mainstream supermarkets carry a handful of Indian ingredients (check the "international" aisles), some traditional ingredients may require a trip to a specialty grocery. In the Baltimore area, try one of these shops:
•Asia Food: 410-323-8738; 5224 York Road, Baltimore
•Desi Bazaar: 410-997-8400; 9179-H Red Branch Road, Columbia
•Dipal Food Market: 410-685-2298; 1001 W. Cross St., Baltimore
•Patel Brothers Grocers; 410-719-2822; 6400 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville
•Pavan Foods: 410-663-3201; 8904 Harford Road, Baltimore
•Punjab Groceries & Halal Meat; 410-662-7844; 345 E. 33rd St., Baltimore
If you go
For more information about the Johns Hopkins IGSA celebration, visit jhu.edu/igsa; for the University of Maryland, Baltimore party, visit umaryland.edu/indianassociation.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun