Diwali Celebrations at Home: Choose Your Own Adventure

Eats: Chicken 65, Souped-up Sambhar, Apple Kheer & Lemon Rice
Tunes: Lakshmi Stotram and Bollywood Dance Party playlist of Spotify
Tradition Redux:  A look at varied memories and traditions for Diwali
Activity: Paint some diyas for your puja, or just fun/decoration

Note: Diwali in February? Better late than never!  I just went to send this to someone as a reference for our upcoming Korean New Year series and only then realized it was unpublished.  oops.  😀


Although we take some artistic or logistical liberties in our celebrating of Indian festivals and traditions from our home in Brooklyn, we do routinely go back to the source to check in and ensure that we are keeping in the true spirit and intention of things.  This year, I also reached out to some friends for their own reflections on Diwalis of their childhood; what they remembered, and what they carry forward for their own families.  The intent is to begin to provide a broader example any given celebration or tradition, particularly as we lead into 2018 in which we will feature several diverse experiences around a given holiday or ritual.

As usu

al, this year I also WhatsApped my mother-in-law to see what she’d be preparing, and she said “lemon rice, Pongal, Vada and Kheer.”  Somehow I’d never made Lemon Rice, so that was a definite.  Generally, we are not huge fans of Kheer but I thought it would be fun to try a version using shredded apple (to use some of the abundance from the yearly apple picking excursion, and a fun way to tie that tradition with Diwali) rather than vermicelli. It was great.  We then substituted Chicken 65 for vada for a different fried deliciousness (was fresh out of vada ingredients).  And we just plain skipped Pongal because no one’s a big fan (side note: yes, I know that part of the reason for making Pongal is prasadam, but we offered kheer instead).



Click on over to the Spotify playlist here.

First up: a Lakshmi Stotrum to assist with the puja, then many of our all time fave Bollywood dance hits!  Let the dance party begin.  I hope you have your mini disco ball ready.  Our kids insist on it for any dance party.  As it should be… no?


Diwali Redux: Memories & Traditions

As you probably know, Diwali is the festival of lights.  Across geographies, there are variations on the legends behind and traditional rituals of the Diwali festival, but of course there are some similarities as well.

I’ve been in Hyderabad, India for a few Diwali festivals now, and our Brooklyn celebrations are decidedly more low key (read: safer, what with no fireworks bouncing off buildings back at us), but they are fun nonetheless.  And they are repeatable!

SN, in Pondicherry (India):

“This is what I remember of Diwali growing up:

Since for Diwali we perform goddess Laxmi puja, and it is believed that she visits the houses which are kept clean, the folks actually start cleaning and reorganizing their houses (and shops too) way before the festival. Diyas when lighted in front of the house is supposed to invite the goddess and show her the path to their homes. Folks also purchase gold/ silver around this time.

We also celebrate one day before Diwali as Naraka Chadurdasi. This is the day they say Lord Krishna with the help of his wife Satyabhama killed the demon Narakasura. We actually take head bath on this day as the Diwali day is amavasya (I am not exactly sure of the reasons, but we usually don’t take head baths on amavasya). We used to make some milk based sweet at home and offer it to God this day.

Diwali also marks the start of Karthika maasam in Andhra which is a very auspicious month where many people fast all day performing pooja to Lord Shiva and break the fast only after sunset.

On the day of Diwali, we perform goddess Lakshmi puja in the evening and then light all the diyas and burn the fire crackers. Right after we are done with the fire works, the first thing they say we should eat is a sweet.

When it comes to sweets, I remember in Hyderabad there was one particular sweet that used to be available in sweets shops only around Diwali time – Pheni. This I believe is more from North where Marwadis community has this tradition of eating it around that time. But, all the same, we used to enjoy that very much around Diwali and still do.

When we were growing up, we used to concentrate more on fire works :-). We made small ones with news papers, sand and gun powder. we also used to get lot of hand made local fire crackers – mathabulu, seema tapasulu, sisindhri, ullipayalu (English translation – onions), which we used start burning them way before Diwali 🙂 They were in many ways eco-friendly, known to kill lot of mosquitoes and other flies, unlike the ones that we get now. 

This year for Diwali, kids colored the diyas and decorated them with gem stones, did lot of rangolis and also lighted some Chinese lanterns over the weekend!”

YS, in Northern New Jersey (USA):

“Growing up in India, we would always eat lemon rice, tamarind rice and pongal.  In Telugu states the primary staple or grain that is readily available is rice. I think that’s why festive special dish is typically a rice dish. I think there is actually some practical reasons behind Diwali fireworks: the fumes typically get rid of mosquitoes which are plenty in this season. Also to cope with changing seasons and rains, celebration helps.  What’s better than adding a little twist with “victory of good over evil?

TC, in Brooklyn, NY (USA):

“I asked my mom and aunts about the roots of our Diwali traditions.  They said food should include saag, channa / rice khichdi. We do a prayer, aarti, singing then eat and hang out!  People often host lots of parties with card games.”

RMoB, in Brooklyn, NY (USA):

“This!  Good food, puja, dance party, and leading up to the fest we will have painted diyas to use for our puja.  This is extra special because we do it every year and it’s fun to see how our skills and designs change as a family over the years.  We also like to invite friends over to paint diyas with us (and we also did it in our kids’ preschool classes), so it’s also a nice trip down memory lane to pull out diyas from years past when friends had decided to leave one with us, in addition to taking one home.”

kiddos arrangement of diyas and flowers for our diwali puja


Overall game plan: Marinate chicken for a bit, get rice cooking in the rice cooker to later become lemon rice, and then work on sambhar.  When sambhar is thickening and melding, quickly make kheer and let it sit until dessert time.  Then again, if you have time to make the sambhar the day before or pull it out of the freezer from last month, which is even better.

Chicken 65

I was first introduced to Chicken 65 as a bar snack in Hyderabad, washed down with a Kingfisher or 3. Since then it's become a regular on our family's table. We enjoy it as an appetizer for dinner parties, or alongside pulau and dal or sambhar.


  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped very small and loosely packed
  • 2 1/2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
  • 2 egg whites
  • 4 drops of red food coloring
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp chili powder (more to taste / depending on strength!)
  • 1 small green chili, diced small (optional but so delicious)
  • 1 1/2 lbs chicken thigh, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 5 tbsp corn starch
  • vegetable oil for frying (amount depends on size of your pan)


  • Prep for marinade: juice the lemon(s); clean and chop cilantro & chicken, and make ginger garlic paste, if you don’t have it on hand.
  • In a large bowl, whisk egg whites to combine a bit.
  • Add ginger-garlic paste, food coloring, cilantro, lemon juice, salt and chili powder and whisk until combined. Keep aside.
  • Clean and chop chicken and add it to the marinade, while stirring to coat the chicken. Marinate for 30 minutes in the fridge if you have time, but really, it’s not that necessary.
  • Add the corn starch when you’re ready to cook. This should thicken things up enough that the chicken is coated a bit and nothing drips off to be left in the bowl.
  • Heat the oil on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add 2 pieces of chicken (start with that to test taste and consistency). Ensure the pieces don’t stick to each other and turn them, if necessary. They will begin to turn a bit darker in color when cooked. Cut it to confirm it is cooked all the way through. Allow them to cool on a paper towel for a moment to absorb any excess oil.
  • Adjust accordingly and continue in small batches, per the size of your pan.

Souped-up Sambhar


  • 1/2 - 3/4 lb of carrots sliced into 2 inch x 1/4 inch sticks
  • 1 package of Gits Sambhar Mix* (a great base! Highly recommend, but I prepared with the below adjustments to take it to the next level)
  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 lb okra, tips removed and sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (frozen chopped okra works well, too)
  • 4 tbsp buffalo ghee
  • 2 whole red chilis, but tops popped to removed as many seeds as possible
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds


  • Heat 4 1/4 cups of water in large saucepan. When boiling add carrots and cook until just tender.
  • Add Gits mix and stir ensuring all is dissolved.
  • Add chopped tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down.
  • Add okra and cook until okra just becomes soft (5-10 mins)
  • Heat a small fry pan. When hot, add the ghee, moving the pan to melt it.
  • Add the red chilis and mustard seeds, continuing to shake the pan so that nothing burns.
  • When the seeds begin to pop, turn off the heat and add the tempered ghee to the sambhar mixture (careful! It will sputter!)
  • Cook for a few mins longer.


Some chefs would tell you to add the tempering only at the very end but I like cooking it a bit more. I think it tastes even better the next day or 2 when reheated!
We prefer our sambhar a bit thicker than you may find in restaurants or even on tables in India. Somewhere in between soup and chili. Perhaps the consistency of melted ice cream? Try it!
Adapted from Sanjay Kapoor’s online version
*Find Gits Sambhar Mix here


Lemon Rice

We simply followed the Veg Recipes of India recipe for Lemon Rice.

Apple Kheer


  • 6 smallish apples (by US standards at least, we used Empire apples this time)
  • 1/3 cup slivered almonds
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 15 pistachios
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom powder (more to taste)
  • dash of salt
  • optional garnishes: saunf*, additional cardamom powder, raisins, almond slivers


  • Peel and grate apples.
  • Cook in a sauce pan over medium heat, stirring constantly, allowing some of the moisture to evaporate.
  • After 5 minutes, add almonds and cook for at least another 5 mins, when the moisture should be nearly gone.
  • Add evaporated milk, sugar, pistachios, cardamom powder and salt and increase heat slightly until it nearly boils, then reduce it to medium low to simmer gently.
  • After about 8 minutes, when desired consistency is reached, turn off the heat and let it cool. You may even want to chill it before serving it.
  • Serve in individual small bowls/glasses, or in a serving bowl. Garnish as desired.


If we didn’t have apple skin allergies, I probably wouldn’t bother peeling them, both for texture and color!
Adapted from Sanjeev Kapoor’s online version
* You can find saunf here

Activity: Paint Some Diyas!

still having photo issues so I can’t put my finger on ANY year’s photos of diya painting but here’s a similar photo of decorating dandiya sticks for Dusshera which is around the same time of year!

Depending on your paint and decorations, make sure to leave some time for these to try before you need them for your puja.


  • DiyasThis is the style we use each year, but they are probably less expensive if you have a Indian store close by.  In those stores you may even find varied sizes and more intricate designs like this one, but unpainted.
  • Paints – We’ve tried both acrylic paints and tempera paints.   The tempera we had was sparkly so the kids tended toward that, but it also was absorbed byt he terracotta and required several coats.
  • Tea Lights – the traditional way is to use cotton wicks with oil or ghee, but once you decorate these diyas, it’s best to use tea lights.  Some friends even prefer the electric version, but we use actual flames, even w/ kiddos.
  • Glitter Glue / Puffy Paint: is a nice way to embellish but not necessary.  I got glitter glue from Target one year but it didn’t work as planned.  Some colors wouldn’t come out of the squeeze top, and others came out in huge blobs. ended up using them as paint, or in small dabs with a toothpick but I don’t recommend! Takes forever to dry, even with a hairdryer on low (high would blow the glue right off!!)
  • Sequins, confetti, glitter – use only if you have quick drying glue, or you will be inviting tears from your little artists.
  1. Cover your surface for easier clean-up later.
  2. Wipe off diyas with damp cloth to get off any dust.
  3. Prepare decoration items:
    1. Clean brushes
    2. Squeeze bits of paint into egg cartons
  4. Get friends to the table and start decorating!


  • The terracotta will absorb the paint pretty quickly, so plan on doing a few coats.
  • Instructions for painting terracotta usually include a step to seal it before and after painting, but we have never bothered with this.  I think the sealing is preferable if painting flowerpots that will be outside for example but these diyas are strictly indoor use for us.