Around 2,500 years ago, someone in India had the inspired, world-changing idea to extract granulated sugar from sugarcane juice, thereby creating joy. True, it was not the most long-lasting sort of joy, and not without its hazards (India currently has the highest diabetes rate in the world, 17% of the population versus 11% here). But that sugar does bring us joy— and creates joyful memories that never quite leave us — there can be no question.
It was also about 2,500 years ago that Indian Hindus began celebrating Diwali, a five-day festival devoted to the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance — and the heavy consumption of sweets, or mithai, over an otherwise healthy diet. This year's begins Nov. 12.
Which brings us to present-day America, where “Diwali is having a mainstream moment,” CNN declared last year. Perhaps it's the universal need to return to our childhoods. Diwali’s sweets seem to fund such journeys with unusual ease.
“I was the youngest of six siblings and we stayed in a joint family house, 16 to 18 people under one roof,” said Santokh Singh, 57 , smiling broadly as he heated a skillet of ghee, or clarified butter, dropped in several pods of cardamom and recalled his youth as the son of a farmer in rural Punjab. “During the festival, our home, the neighbor's place, in fact the entire village was illuminated with diyas” — oil lamps — "candles and lanterns.”
Once Singh stripped cardamom pods straight from the stems and made ghee from the milk of cows, goats and even a pair of buffalo on the family farm, but the end result both there and at Mahal in Roslyn Heights, where Singh has been executive chef since the restaurant’s opening in 2022, has always been a happy one, gajar ka halwa, a warm carrot pudding that’s a particular favorite of Hamsini Kumble of New Hyde Park.
“I grew up in the southern Indian city of Mysore, where the staple food is rice and many of the sweets are made with rice too, like rice fritters,” said Kumble, who teaches Indian classical dance. And while halwa is a northern specialty, she loves it anyway, that and all her memories of the special ways Diwali was celebrated in her hometown. “The kids and the parents all take oil baths,” she remembered. “You’d condition your hair and body with oil, take a shower and then you prayed.” Then it was on to prepping dinner for guests, eating sweets, lighting firecrackers. Diwali takes her back to all of it.
Grated carrots sizzled loudly when Singh dropped them in the hot ghee. Then he added powdered cardamom, sugar and grated khoya (condensed milk solids), reducing the whole mixture till it was thick and glossy. Finally, he showered it with bits of almonds, walnuts and cashews. One dish complete.
Singh moved on to one of the most popular mithais — besan ka ladoo — spherical chickpea flour-based cookies that are also among the simplest, comprising chickpea flour, sugar and ghee in a precise 4:2:1 ratio.
“I love ladoos,” said Tenzin Rigsang, noting that they come in many flavors, including coconut and rose water. The Hicksville resident, who is a Mahal regular and Buddhist — ”Buddhists celebrate Diwali too!” — confessed that his ladoo loyalty began in childhood “and it’s still my favorite after all these years.” It’s not hard to see why. Singh’s version, all buttery mealiness, creates happy memories in almost everyone who bites into one.
Other sweets, other memories. There’s jalebi, a translucent flour and saffron creation that’s deep-fried, soaked in simple syrup, and resembles a cross between funnel cake and a silly straw. One bite brings it all back for Netti Kaur — her Sikh childhood in Delhi (Sikhs have celebrated Diwali since the 18th century), lighting clay lamps on the family’s balcony, her grandparents’ way of enjoying the sweet. “If you soak the jalebi in milk it colors and sweetens the milk,” she said. “It’s an interesting combination.” Kaur, 40, who now lives in Bethpage, keeps her elders’ tradition alive, eating jalebi in milk for the holiday, even as she has expanded her thinking on the holiday itself. For her, “it’s not just the triumph of good over evil but a reason to celebrate life every day.”
Barfi is the name for an entire category of sweets in which milk is the principal ingredient, including kaju katli, a lovely cashew confection with a softly fudgy texture and a distinctive diamond shape often painted with a thin sheet of silver leaf. It happens to be the personal favorite of Sheetal Talati, owner of Hicksville’s Rajbhog Cafe, which has been a pilgrimage site for Diwali mithai seekers for more than two decades.
“Sweets are used in all Indian households for auspicious occasions — weddings, the birth of a child and festivals,” said Talati. Diwali, the biggest festival of all, is celebrated throughout the subcontinent, each with mithai based on local ingredients. “Some parts of the country have more nut sweets, some milk items, some fried items.” Thanks to social media, chocolate mithai has become popular, and thanks to health issues, sugar-free sweets have too. Of late, Rajbhog's Flushing factory has been working overtime to produce roughly 60 different mithai for Diwali season. “It’s a huge variety, but we need to cater to the entire Indian diaspora,” Talati said. The same, somewhat impossible task is faced by Real Usha Sweets & Snacks in Floral Park, which draws fans of another milky pastry, gujiya, often known as an Indian empanada, a deep-fried pocket stuffed with khoya and nuts.
“It is definitely becoming more of a holiday in America,” confirmed Talati, who’s been celebrating Diwali since her childhood in Mumbai. “It brings families together, all the children living in different places. And it’s a very happy festival with the lights and people decorating their houses. Just like Christmas.”
Back in the Mahal kitchen, Singh slowly poured a liter of milk in a skillet, beginning the long process of reducing it for rabri, a creamy spiced dessert that is also used as a kind of sauce in several Diwali desserts. “We stir up some saffron in a little cup of milk to help it dissolve, and then pour that in,” he said, adding it to the skillet, softening the mixture’s whiteness. Skins quickly developed on top, which Singh skimmed to the side, the milk exhaling thick bubbles that popped ever more slowly as the mixture reduced.
Rabri acts as a finishing sauce for the bread pudding known as shahi tukda, my own personal Diwali pick, owing to its unapologetic decadence. Singh walked me through it, frying triangles of white bread in ghee till golden brown, dunking them in simple syrup, plating them. In the finale, he gave the toast a heavy ladling of rabri, sprinkling chopped pistachios on top. Divine.
The remaining rabri he used as a topping for rasmalai, little discs of Indian cheese boiled in cream. The dish is an East Indian favorite, and also the favorite of Mohit Kundnani, a 22-year-old server at Mahal who grew up far from the birthplace of Diwali, in Hicksville, but looks forward to it eagerly every year. “The whole family gets together and celebrates this festival of light,” he said, “which is funny because usually my mom will be like, ‘why are all these lights on?’ But the electric bill doesn’t exist on that day. It’s so great. I myself go around and turn on every single light in the house!”
When Kundnani was a child, like most children his favorite Diwali treat was gulab jamun, a bowl of spongy milk balls made from khoya and flour that are deep-fried and bathed in an exquisite rose water syrup staining them reddish brown. But gulab jamun has its adult adherents, including Anil Sabharwal.
“We always bought new clothes, because it’s a very big, important festival,” he said. And when Sabharwal left the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, his hometown, for Levittown, he brought Diwali with him, although shooting off fireworks in all directions and going house-to-house in the neighborhood for celebrations seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Diwali stateside is a more modest affair in other ways. Mesmerizing though they are, most Indians on the Island don’t decorate their doorsteps with rangoli, beautiful if fleeting pieces of floor art in which elaborate geometric patterns are constructed out of dyed rice flour or seeds. And here, the holiday’s embrace of family togetherness often finds itself clashing with America’s penchant for dispersing family members hither and yon, so much so that even the promise of Diwali’s sweets isn’t always enough to bring everyone home.
But when you’re a holiday embraced by several major religions, you learn to adapt, and one senses that the universality of Diwali’s message is no small part of its growing appeal. Diwali, it seems, can be celebrated wherever a love of light, goodness and truth exists. And sweets, of course.
Back home in Punjab, Diwali meant “cleaning every nook and corner of our house and applying a fresh coat of paint to the walls of our home,” recalled chef Singh. Then, Diwali meant gifts from family elders, elaborate meals, unbridled merriment and prayers of gratitude for the little village that was his whole world. Today, things are different, but also the same. “Now, it’s the distribution of sweets among friends and extended family members,” said Singh. “And prayers and gratitude for where I am today.”