Celebrating Diwali with Paneer Makhani and a table full of sweets
A writer on her memories of the festivities growing up, and how she's adapted them today
I have many happy memories around Diwali, growing up in India; one of the earliest is of dressing up in a traditional lehenga skirt and knocking on doors to wish neighbours, "Happy Diwali." My family would decorate special plates with flowers and a diya (tealight) before filling them with all sorts of colourful Indian sweets — gujiya, ladoo, burfi to name a few. Walking up and down the neighbourhood, the mithai plate in one hand and my long skirt hem gathered in the other, stepping around women as they squatted in doorways, drawing colourful patterns of rangoli with coloured sand on the floor — the memories are embedded in my soul.
Today my neighbourhood is in Canada, and the same traditions that my parents instilled decades ago in India have taken on new form. It started with adapting to the weather, I remember; it howled snow one Diwali day in Calgary. The following year, rangoli patterns moved indoors. The other thing we got used to? Wearing traditional Indian clothes for Diwali with snow boots.
For myself, cooking for Diwali has also changed over the years. My celebrations have become more intimate. I put more emphasis on finger foods so that people can mingle and chat with their hands-free. Mine is often a mix of store-bought and homemade goodies, so that my feast can be turned around even if the festival falls on a school night. Like all Indian celebrations, Diwali gatherings centre around food! But dinner on Diwali night was often simple, what with families pleasantly tired after the fireworks and festivities, so on the night of the big festival, we often choose light, comforting but still festive dishes.
Paneer makhani is popular for exactly those reasons. Cubes of paneer simmered in a traditional North-Indian style onion, tomato, ginger gravy with a sprinkle of freshly-roasted spices. My mom serves paneer makhani with her homemade parathas on special occasions. There was a time I'd only rarely make this dish because of the multiple steps involved. But after repeated requests for it from my kids, I started making it more often and with variations, simplifying some of the steps.
If I may, the recipe I'm sharing here is straightforward, but still fabulous, festive warmth on a plate. And, alongside the main dish, there are always sweets, like the aforementioned gujiya, ladoo and burfi. After all, it is Diwali, and there is always room for dessert.
Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma is a blogger and better food advocate behind Maple and Marigold. She writes about family, food, wellness and ways to help people form deeper connections with their food. Her blog is her love letter to India and Canada. Maple represents Canada and her family's life here, and marigold with its significance in Indian culture, represents her roots in India. Puneeta has also launched a public awareness initiative Nourish by Numbers that is dedicated to educating and engaging people to make food choices that are better for people and for the planet. You can follow Puneeta @MapleandMarigold.