Diwali Is All About Family, Friends, Food—and a Fresh Start
Pictured Recipe: Almond Burfi
I vividly remember sitting cross-legged on the cool tile floor in the kitchen with a freshly blanched, still-hot almond between by thumb and forefinger, one eye closed, with my younger brother in the crosshairs. My mother would task us with peeling the skins off of hundreds (I feel like it was thousands) of almonds, the base for a fudgelike sweet called burfi. But every so often I would choose instead to weaponize the almond, squeezing the skin and getting the almond to launch at my brother like a missile.
This was our family ritual every fall in preparation for Diwali. Also called the Festival of Lights, Diwali is celebrated by Hindus all over the world in October or November, with the date changing annually based on the lunar cycle. It's a multiday celebration of good triumphing over evil, and signifies a fresh start. Worshipers pray to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, for a future full of prosperity; houses are illuminated with oil-burning candles, and kids are gifted new clothes. But what it's really all about, my mother says, is family, friends and food.
While I don't remember the new clothes thing ever happening at our house, the food was unforgettable. In the days leading up to Diwali, my mother would cook an eye-popping array of fried snacks and sweets for us and for the endless stream of family and friends who would drop by to share boxes of their own assorted homemade treats in exchange for ours—the Indian version of a cookie swap.
There was chakli, a blend of chickpea, lentil and rice flours that was transformed into savory and spicy heaven through the magic of deep-frying, and kodubale, another spicy, crunchy fried snack shaped like bangles, and pakora, or vegetable fritters. There were laddus, sweet balls of ghee, flour and sugar, and halwa, a cardamom-scented thick puddinglike dessert. But my favorite was always burfi. Maybe because I knew firsthand that it was such a labor of love.
"Life is so easy for you now," my mother says in her version of an I-had-to-walk-10-miles-in-the-snow saga. "Back then, we had to blanch the almonds, peel them by hand, dry them for two days and grind them. What took us days to make takes you just minutes."
Thanks to widely available store-bought almond flour, the active time on burfi like my mom made is now just 35 minutes.
As with most Indian dishes, every family has their own unique way to make burfi, based on available ingredients and regional nuances. Growing up, my mother's family only made burfi with coconut, because almonds were too expensive in India at the time. Others make their burfi with chickpea flour, and many use a heart-stopping amount of condensed milk or ghee (or both).
My mom developed her own recipe for burfi fresh after coming to the U.S. As a 23-year-old immigrant (back before you could just Google recipes), she missed the taste of home and the Diwali celebrations there. With access to new ingredients and an appetite for trial and error, she worked her way to the burfi my family knows and loves today, with my dad a willing guinea pig along for the ride.
When I think about it, mom's burfi is the perfect edible ode to the fresh start that Diwali represents. My version of her burfi recipe sticks closely to what she developed, but has less sugar and the option to add salted pistachios for a pop of savory flavor to balance out the sweet.
Vidya Rao is a Los Angeles-based food writer and editor. She is a graduate of Natural Gourmet Institute and Columbia University School of Journalism.