personal essay

Indian Home Fries and Almond Tahini Cake: My Modern Take on My Family’s Diwali Recipes

published Nov 4, 2021
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Credit: Photos: Melissa Hom

Diwali translates to the festival of lights or row of lights. And most Indians generally celebrate that way. What do I mean by that? Well, I can’t speak on behalf of every Indian household, because we all have our own traditions, nuances, and regional specialties, but one thing is common: lights. We light up our homes with deepas (or diyas), small candles nestled in a clay pot; turn on all the lights in our home; and light up some fireworks (or, in our case, sparklers).

Diwali has deep roots in Hinduism and is the story of the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. According to Hindu mythology, specifically the Ramayana, Diwali represents the time Rama, Sita, Lakshman, and Hanuman (one of my favorite Gods, the monkey God), defeated the demon king Ravana and came home. So, the lights represent lighting a path to guide them home. Diwali is also a time where Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth & prosperity, is celebrated; it is said that she was born at the start of Diwali (which is generally a five-day festival) or the time she married Vishnu. And lastly, Diwali represents harvest time. As you can see, there is a lot going on during Diwali. And it’s celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs alike, which makes it that much more festive, significant, and inclusive across India and the world.

Even though I’ve traveled to India practically every year of my life growing up and into my adult years, I’ve never been to India for Diwali. It always falls in October or November, which tends to be hard to take off from school or work. This meant my family and I just needed to do it up big in the Naik household in New York City! Our celebrations have certainly become smaller over the years, as my sisters and I get older, but we always hold a Lakshmi Pooja (a religious celebration and ceremony of Goddess Lakshmi), light up our home, and make a ton of veggie-focused food with a specific focus on homemade snacks and sweets. Diwali is all about indulging — gold and silver leaf draped over sweet and sticky saffron sugar syrup-soaked pastries (Chiroti), chickpea flour-based spicy snacks (Chuckli), and a feast of vegetable dishes. There’s absolutely no meat ever in sight for any Hindu festivals.

To celebrate Diwali, I wanted to share two modern versions of dishes I grew up eating at our Diwali table from my debut cookbook, The Modern Tiffin. Let me preface this by saying that my food will never compare to the food and feasts that my Momma, Manjula Naik, makes single-handedly for every Hindu festival at home. But I can try and emulate her talents, right? My Indian Home Fries with Peanuts is my take on a staple at the Naik household: potato! It combines sweet potatoes with green chilies, cumin, coconut, and peanuts — an uncanny, but absolutely delicious flavor combination. This dish tastes the best when paired with basmati rice and a bit of coconut-yogurt raita. It’s simple and comforting.

And we can’t leave our Diwali table without a decadent sweet! Enter: my Almond Tahini Cake with Rose Syrup and Pistachio. This flavor combo is popular through Turkey, Iran, and much of the Middle East, and it’s equally popular in India, too. A sweet loaf cake soaked in a decadent rose syrup and topped with vibrant green pistachios is the perfect way to end your Diwali meal.

I hope these dishes bring a bit of my family and life into your home this Diwali season. My advice to you is to always enjoy what you cook and who you share it with. That, above all else, is what’s most important this holiday season.

Celebrate Diwali with My Recipes

Credit: Melissa Hom
Indian Home Fries

These sweet, spicy, crunchy sweet potato home fries will be the star of your next brunch. Pro tip: Keep this recipe handy for Thanksgiving.

Get the recipe: Indian Home Fries with Peanuts

Credit: Melissa Hom
Almond Tahini Cake

Soaked with a sweet rose syrup and topped with buttery green pistachios, this easy-but-impressive loaf cake is a dessert star.

Get the recipe: Almond Tahini Cake with Rose Syrup and Pistachio