3 Indian Chefs on Food & Feeding People on Diwali
By Tiffany Ran
October 20, 2017
Diwali, known as the festival of light, is one of the largest festivals in India and held by many religions to symbolize the triumph of good over evil. As our local skies darken and the air chills around us, the warmth of Diwali and its many delights can be found throughout King County’s large South Asian community, in humble home parties and large public events. Indian chefs, though, are often tasked with bringing traditional and innovative dishes to the holiday table. It’s hard work but, like all chefs, they take pride in feeding everyone around them.
We asked 3 local chefs about how they celebrate Diwali (hint: it involves cooking) and to share their favorite dishes.
NIRMAL MONTEIRO, Chef & Owner | Nirmal’s
Chef Nirmal Monteiro started his career in Mumbai where he trained in classical Indian techniques. He worked internationally as a Head Indian Chef for the Hilton Hotel Group in Japan, held chef positions in Italy, and even consulted on kitchen service for U.S. armed forces in Japan. In Seattle, Monteiro’s decades of experience are reflected on the creative menu at his namesake restaurant Nirmal’s in Pioneer Square. For Diwali, Monteiro introduces a special two-night only Diwali menu blending the customary sweet with his signature savory this Friday and Saturday. Reservations are available on their website.
What special considerations did you take in designing a menu for Diwali?
This menu accommodates both the traditional and the new. The menu I designed has more sweetness because that is what people enjoy during Diwali. Every dish is technically savory but it’s got a touch of sweetness.
The food we try to make is authentic and, to some extent, it’s creative as well. In India, people who celebrate Diwali are usually vegetarian but, since we’re in the U.S., [our menu] is cross-cultural and we give people the choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
What are some dishes we can expect?
The first dish is called Dhahi Bala Supreme. It’s a dish made with white lentils. You soak the white lentils overnight and blend it to make a smooth paste. We add some seasonings –chilies, cilantro and salt – and then we deep fry it into dumplings. Once they’re deep fried, we soak it in warm water and it becomes moist and spongy. We place it with a yogurt, some roasted mango powder, and roasted chili powder. Diwali is about sweets so instead of adding sugar, I’ll be adding mango pulp. Then I top this with Pineapple Confetti. I mix pineapple juice, flour, a little bit of baking powder. It becomes a batter and I pass it through a sieve and and fry it over hot oil. I call that confetti. The dish is not overly sweet because it has some savory flavors as well.
For the non-vegetarians, there will be Lamb Galotti Kabab. Lamb Galotti Kabab is a specialty of Lucknow, a city in northern India. It’s made with minced lamb mixed with cilantro, ginger, chilies, turmeric, and garlic. We make a small ball and press it into a patty. It is dipped in an egg batter and pan fried and comes out resembling a small burger. This dish will also include Squid Taledi. I take baby squid and spice it with red chili paste, garam marsala powder, cumin, and lime juice. It will be marinated and crispy fried. Taledi is usually using chicken, but here I’m using squid.
With dessert being a focus for Diwali, what’s the dessert on the menu?
The dessert is called Mithas. Mithas simply means sweets. I’m doing something that you don’t normally find in Indian food: carrot pudding puffs. The stuffing is very traditional in India, called “gajar halva”, a carrot pudding. I’m going to make this traditional gajar halva and stuff it in a fennel pastry and baste it with a sugar syrup on top and bake it. It will be that sweet, moist pudding inside with a crispy seven layers on top. I’m serving it with guava ice cream. I’ll make a fresh orange sauce and fill it with caraway seeds and I’ll drizzle the dessert with orange caraway seeds and finish with a little orange zest on top. Caraway seeds have a very strong flavor popular in British plum pudding. I decided to use it here and I think it will be a perfect orange, caraway flavor.
Every year, the Seattle Art Museum throws one of the largest Diwali bashes in the area. The Diwali Ball that took place on the evening of October 14, featured dance performances, Bollywood music, and more. Every year, Mohammed Bhatti and his team at Saffron Grill gears up for one of their largest catering events in town, providing dinner for the Diwali Ball at the Seattle Art Museum as well as Diwali events on the Eastside with upward of 3,000 attendees.
Customarily, Diwali observers enjoy vegetarian meals. Are you preparing only vegetarian dishes as part of your Diwali catering?
The Seattle Art Museum Diwali Ball was more of a fusion event. The mixture of guests consists of vegetarian and non-vegetarian people, but the new trend with the Diwali ball is that people are eating some meat as well. Traditionally speaking, it’s all vegetarian. Seattle Art Museum is a very unique gathering. People stay there all night until 1:00am, dancing, wining and dining. They have so much fun over there.
Unlike other holidays, there doesn’t seem to be any mandatory must-have dishes for Diwali. Are there any popular dishes that you continue to offer each year for Diwali?
We have some items that we always serve. For example, on Saturday, we have about 1500 people [for which] we’re catering for Diwali, and they’ll have the paneer pakora, vegetable samosas, shahi paneer, all those vegetarian dishes.
Given the large amount of catering during the holiday, do you and your team have an opportunity to enjoy or celebrate this holiday?
We enjoy it while we are working, but we are a very busy operation. I own two restaurants, Saffron Grill and Taste of India. It’s part of the job. We have a huge staff here. We enjoy it while we work but this is how we are. [With restaurants], when we need it we take time off, but otherwise we work.
What’s your personal favorite vegetarian dish?
My favorite is Baingan Bharta, which is eggplant baked over an open flame, mashed, and seasoned with herbs, sautéed onions, green peas, and fresh tomatoes. The other one is Malai Kofta. It’s freshly grated vegetables and homemade cheese dumpling, which we simmer in a butter sauce.
HARPREET GILL, Director of Operations | Punjab Sweets
Punjab Sweets began in 2001 when Iqbol Dha along with her husband and brother opened a bakery and snack shop in Kent. The business grew from one single display case of Indian sweets to a large operation to also include savory snacks and dishes and over 25 different sweets available for order online via its website. Punjab Sweets has remained a family business. Dha’s daughter Harpreet Gill manages operations, including through the busy Diwali season, when sweets are the most in demand.
What are the most popular sweets that you sell during this time?
The gulab jamun (milk-based donut holes soaked in a flavored syrup), and ladoo (soft spherical pastries made of chickpea flour) are the two that stand out most because those are the ones people most often bring to family and friends during the holiday.
Why is it that sweets play such a big role in this holiday?
Everybody has their way that they celebrate; Sikhs celebrate it a different way, and Hindus celebrate it a different way. Everybody celebrates it with giving sweets to their God and to their friends and family. It’s similar to holidays here where they give gifts. For Diwali, we give different kind of sweets to our loved ones.
Do you have a personal favorite you enjoy?
I love besan. That’s made from chickpea flour, the same kind of flour as ludoo, but it’s more of a fudge-like texture. When you eat it, it ends up having a peanut buttery texture and gets stuck on the roof of your mouth and the sides.
How would you celebrate Diwali if you didn’t have to work?
We really don’t get a lot of time trying to get everything done. For the last sixteen years, we’ve been here helping everyone to celebrate the holiday.