Recipes for Diwali, the festival of lights: Sooji Halwa, Aloo Tikki

Food feeds many hungers, one of which is the hunger for the sacred. The nexus of food and religion makes meaning, helps order everyday life and marks special occasions for countless believers.

The festival of Diwali, a major annual five-day celebration for millions of Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, begins this year on Oct. 24. It is known as “the festival of lights” for the rows of colorful clay lamps set and lit outside the home. At its center, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over dark, good over evil.

Diwali is certainly about the preparation and eating of many foods, particularly sweet foods (“mithai”), positive signs of goodness in the coming months. (Judaism enacts the same sentiment at Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of its new year, with pieces of apple dipped in honey.)

One recipe here is a dessert of semolina flour cooked with both water and milk, sweetened with sugar, golden raisins and nuts. Very Diwali. The other is one of the more common street foods of India, aloo tikki (word for word, “potato patties”) that I decorated, as it were, with green peas, yellow corn kernels and bits of both green and red chile peppers. Again, very Diwali, a feast also known for its lavish coloring of street lights, clothing and table settings.

Sooji Halwa (Sweetened Semolina Pudding)

Adapted from cookwithmanali.com. Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup for a sweeter halwa)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • 1/3 cup ghee
  • 1/2 cup semolina (sooji), fine grind
  • 10 whole cashew nuts broken into small pieces or 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • 1/8 teaspoon cardamom powder

Directions

To a pot, add sugar, water, milk and saffron. Stir and let it heat up on medium heat. Do not boil but do dissolve all the sugar crystals. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, melt the ghee in a second pan over medium heat. Add the semolina (sooji) to that pan and stir, coating the sooji with the melted ghee. Add in the nuts and raisins and stir.

Stirring continuously, roast the sooji on medium-low heat. About 1 minute in, add the cardamom powder and continue to stir for around 8-9 minutes. (If you want darker-colored halwa, roast the sooji a couple of minutes more being careful not to burn it.)

Very carefully and slowly add the heated milk-water-sugar mixture to the pan with the heated sooji. It will bubble furiously so be cautious, adding the liquid in 2-3 measures, whisking continuously with the free hand. Keep stirring as the sooji begins to absorb the liquid and thicken.

Stir for 2 minutes more or until the halwa thickens and leaves the sides of the pan. Break up the halwa, if desired. Serve warm, garnished with more nuts if you wish.

Aloo Tikki (Spicy Potato Patties)

Adapted from hebbarskitchen.com and “Indian for Everyone,” by Anupy Singla (Agate, 2014). If you have none of the seasonings or spices, merely substitute 3 teaspoons “curry powder.” (You should not pass on making aloo tikki for want of some Indian spices.) Makes 15 or more patties.

Ingredients

  • 3 large russet potatoes (or equivalent in waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold), peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or neutral vegetable oil
  • 1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
  • 1 small jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, deveined and minced
  • 2-3 red (if available, green if not) serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded, deveined and minced
  • 1 heaping teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried mango powder (amchur)
  • 1 teaspoon chile powder
  • 1 heaping teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2/3 cup peas, frozen OK, cooked, drained and slightly mashed
  • 2/3 cup corn kernels, frozen OK, cooked, drained and slightly mashed
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Neutral vegetable oil for frying

Directions

Cook the potato chunks in highly salted boiling water until cooked through (15-25 minutes). Drain well and let dry off. Mash, keeping some small lumps. Set aside to cool safely enough to handle.

To a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the ghee and melt it. Add the cumin seeds and turmeric and cook for 30 seconds until the seeds begin to sizzle. Add the minced onion and the salt and cook the onions for 2-3 minutes until well softened.

Clear a space in the center and add the ginger-garlic paste and the minced chiles and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Add the 3 powders, the garam masala and the lemon juice and cook the mass, turning it over and over, for 3 minutes. Add the peas and corn and heat through, mixing well with the flavorings. Remove from the heat.

Sprinkle the mashed potatoes with the cornstarch, add the contents of the skillet and fold everything together until well combined.

Form 15 or so patties from 1/4-cup measures of the potato mix and set them aside on parchment paper to rest. Set a large skillet (non-stick OK) over medium-high heat and, in a thin layer of heated oil, cook each side of 4-5 patties at a time (do not crowd; fry in batches) for 2-3 minutes a side until well browned on each side. Flip the patties only once or twice.

Keep the patties warm and resting on opened brown paper bags or paper toweling to absorb any excess oil. Serve warm aside a chutney of your choice and either (or both) a mint or cilantro sauce.

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