Indians enjoy sweet start to their new year

Laste modified: Saturday, November 16, 2013
Diwali, celebrated this year beginning last Sunday, is a multiday festival marking the start of a new calendar and financial year for much of India. Gift giving, family visits and huge fireworks displays are integral parts of the holiday. And sweets. Lots of sweets to foreshadow a sweet new year.

“Diwali is India’s biggest holiday, like Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July all rolled into one,” Meherwan Irani said.

The word “diwali” derives from the Sanskrit for “row of lights.” Like Christmas, it’s become a nonsectarian celebration as well as a religious observance.

To get ready for the holiday, families clean house to get rid of the old and bring in the new.

“Once the house is cleaned and purified, then they light lamps all around the house to dispel the darkness and bring in Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth. Kids get new clothes, and evenings are spent socializing with family and friends,” Irani said.

“Depending on their religion, families will have a ceremony in their houses or go to a temple nearby. Everybody is in a good mood, parents are handing out treats, and at night, everywhere you go, everything is lit up and beautiful. As a kid, Diwali was the most amazing festival. It lasts five days, all the schools are out and it’s all about food, fireworks and sweets. What kid isn’t going to love that?” Irani asked.

Irani was born in London and moved with his family to Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra, India, when he was 4. “Then in 1990, I was shipped off to America to find my fame and fortune like every good Indian kid,” joked Irani, who came to the United States to earn his MBA.

He met his future wife, Molly, while working in her family’s restaurant in Myrtle Beach, S.C., while on summer break from graduate school. As he said, “The rest is history.” Irani went into real estate development, but the financial crisis of 2009 helped him realize what he really wanted to do was to own a restaurant. Within two months, he had the keys to a building, and their first restaurant was underway. The Iranis are the owners of Chai Pani in Decatur, Ga., and in Asheville, N.C.

“Food is a huge part of Diwali, mostly sweets. They symbolize the sweetness of life, sweetness of relationships, sweetness of family. Giving sweets to another family is bringing sweetness into their home,” Irani said. Every shop window will display a variety of complex sweet treats along with the oil lamps that symbolize the holiday.

Families visit from house to house, bringing sweets. “Each family also puts out its own sweets as well as savory snacks. Pakoras are one of the iconic dishes, often made with onions, potatoes and spinach. In my part of India, pooris are often served. I remember my mom making them. We’d watch as almost like magic the breads would puff up in the hot oil. We’d poke a hole to let out the hot air and then stuff them with potatoes,” Irani said.

Purchased sweets are elaborate affairs with special sweet makers vying to outdo one another. “With the sweets, you get taste overload, fragrance overload and then they’re beautiful to look at. Guests would present little boxes of sweets. Inside would be little squares of milk fudge decorated with gold leaf and raisins and pistachios, and the whole box would smell of cinnamon. I can literally smell this right now,” Irani said.