There is no season cookbook author and food blogger Hetal Vasavada loves more than fall. There’s an energy that courses through the crisp air, an excitement surrounding the upcoming months that swirls as the leaves change colors and the temperatures officially return to sweater weather. The oppressive heat of summer is gone, the frozen days of winter are still far off in the distance, and, most importantly, Diwali season is finally here again. “I get butterflies in my stomach when it becomes October!” Vasavada exclaims.
For many across the country, autumn marks the beginning of a season filled with Thanksgiving turkeys and glazed hams, but for Vasavada and her family, Diwali—often referred to as the festival of lights—is the focal point. The holiday, which takes place on November 14 this year (the date is based on the Hindu lunar calendar), represents a triumph of good over evil in Hindu mythology and is celebrated throughout South Asia and its global diaspora. And though there are many customs surrounding Diwali (such as creating rangoli, colorful art made with materials like sand or rice powder, and setting off fireworks), for Vasavada, it has always meant family and food—particularly sweets.
Vasavada grew up as part of a large, working-class Indian American family in the suburbs of New Jersey, surrounded by many cousins, aunts, and uncles. Diwali (which is also referred to as Deepavali) was the only occasion when her parents, immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat, would let her take a break from her rigorous academic endeavors. “It was the one time my parents would let me and my sister skip school,” she says with a laugh. Her mother, who sewed American flags for a living when she first arrived in the United States, would insist Vasavada and her sister wear a new pair of Indian clothes on the day, often stitching the outfits herself from scrap fabric. (It’s a tradition Vasavada continues today, now making outfits for her 4-year-old daughter, Elara.) In these outfits she would join her family to visit relatives and friends, eating her way through an endless stream of sweets, mainly Indian cookies, and drinking more cups of masala chai than a student cramming for final exams.
All of this, however, was just a warm-up for the main event. Diwali, for Vasavada, would always culminate in a large family feast with enough food to feed a small town. “There were a hundred-plus of us at my cousin’s house each year,” she explains. The house would overflow with loud conversation, and the kitchen would overflow with traditional Gujarati homestyle cooking: mountains of puri, a beloved deep-fried flatbread; trays of undhiyu, a specialty of the region made from several vegetables cooked down together with spices and lots of oil; bowls of chana masala, or spiced chickpeas; so much rice; a big jar of Indian pickles (“either a family member picked this up in India or made it from scratch”); vats of piping-hot dal; Indian-style fruit salad; and, perhaps the most important part of the spread, an impressive assortment of sweets, made by family members leading up to the day. Dinner was never eaten off the best china, but instead from Styrofoam plates with separate compartments for each dish.
“All the women would show up at the house a couple of hours early,” Vasavada says. “They planned the menu over the phone weeks in advance. Then they would get together and start cooking, and all the kids would be in another room watching TV or playing around.” In high school, Vasavada started to help out with dinner prep, cutting vegetables and rolling out dough. “It was a time to be in the kitchen, and that was the most fun for me,” she recalls fondly.
Vasavada now lives 3,000 miles away, just south of San Francisco, with her daughter and husband. She hasn’t been able to get back to New Jersey in the eight years since she moved to the West Coast—a fact that weighs on her heavily. “I remember the first Diwali I was out here, I FaceTimed my mom and just sobbed for two hours.” She has no extended family in California. “It’s just the three of us,” Vasavada says. “It makes me sad that Elara doesn’t get to grow up with the Diwali that I had.”
For many like Vasavada, diaspora is a never-ending fight to tighten an ever-loosening grip on traditions. “What I do is diluted from my parents’ Indianness, but what Elara does is diluted from mine.” So Vasavada has created her own new set of Diwali rituals. Her mom now mails her Diwali care packages bursting with Indian snacks, sweets, and spices. “She sends me a big box of literally as much as she can pack into one of those single-rate boxes,” Vasavada says. In turn, Vasavada sends a package of homemade desserts that lean more American in construction—cookies, cakes, bars—but Indian in flavor and technique. (It’s an approach that has quickly become her signature style and is the foundation of her cookbook, Milk & Cardamom.)
And while there is no longer a hundred-person annual feast, Vasavada started hosting Diwali dinners with her friends nearby. “They are not all Indian, but they appease me and come anyway,” she muses. She still dresses up in a new outfit each year, but the meals are simpler. For dinner, it might be pav bhaji—richly spiced mashed vegetables with buttery toasted bread—plus a crunchy Indian snack, like Hash Brown Chaat, or two. The dessert table, however, isn’t any less full. “Everyone brings dessert,” she explains. Vasavada, for her part, bakes up quite a few treats that honor her dual-culture approach. This year, she is going for a coconut burfi cake, which is an ode to kopra pak, essentially coconut fudge, the one Indian sweet her dad can make. There will also be crumbly cardamom shortbread cookies that are filled with a dulce de leche–esque take on peda, a dessert made from boiling down milk. But perhaps the star of the table will be her pistachio burfi bark—a thick layer of pistachio fudge lacquered with just the right amount of white chocolate, decorated with festive edible flowers and bursts of gold foil.
Vasavada realized she is not alone in her journey to maintain and develop new Diwali traditions that straddle two worlds, like she does. This summer, she launched an online bakery, also called Milk & Cardamom, so that she can help bring these desserts—like her burfi barks and popular gulab jamun Bundt cake—to more tables around the country, especially this Diwali season. “It’s a way for my desserts to reach more people, and at the same time, it lets me be a part of a lot of families’ traditions.”
Edible gold and silver foils are a popular way to decorate sweets in South Asian cultures. They must be either 24-karat gold or pure silver to be safe for consumption. They can be purchased from Slo Food Group (Loose Leaf Edible Gold Sheets, $42 for 25 sheets; Loose Leaf Edible Silver Foil, $16 for 25 sheets; slofoodgroup.com). Vasavada uses dried organic rose petals sourced from Morocco from Rose Dose ($10 for 1 ounce, rosedose.com) on many of her desserts. She turns to Jacobs Farm del Cabo in Santa Cruz, California, for most of her other flowers, like calendulas and pansies, and notes that fresh petals from Whole Foods or other retailers will work as long as they are marked as “edible.”