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October is here, and guess what? It is a month of major Hindu festivals, which are colorful expressions of Indian traditions. Vijayadashami is on Oct. 5, and Diwali on Oct. 25. Fortunately, both fall on weekends this year. This is a huge relief for many like me who like to celebrate these festivals with friends.

As a South Indian, I have always been fond of Golu, the tradition of displaying images of deities and dolls on odd-numbered steps during Navaratri, the nine nights of worshipping the Goddess, that culminates with Vijayadashami. It is customary to invite female friends and relatives over, give them coconuts, turmeric, vermilion powder, and betel leaves as symbols of fertility and prosperity. Guests join to sing the praise of the Goddess. An appetizing spread of tamarind rice (recipe in IC December 2002-January 2003), shundal (chick-pea savory), rava kesari (sweetened semolina), and other snack-savories follows. For me, this is also a favorite occasion to visit friends.

On the last three days of Navaratri, Hindus pray to Sarasvati, the Goddess who embodies wisdom, fortune, intelligence, nourishment, brilliance, contentment, splendor, and devotion. It is believed that she endows human beings with the powers of speech, wisdom, and learning. Her four arms represent four aspects of human personality in learning: mind, intellect, alertness, and ego. She holds the sacred scriptures in one hand and a lotus—the symbol of true knowledge—in the second. With her other two arms, she plays the music of love and life on the veena. Since white symbolizes purity and discrimination, she is dressed in white and rides on a white swan.

The most significant aspect of Vijayadashami is that children are taught to read and write their first words. Other youth begin a hobby, such as singing or classical Indian dance, since it is an auspicious day for new beginnings.

It is customary to cook different types of shundal on all nine days of Navaratri using garbanzo beans, black chana, or chana dal as variations. It is quite tasty, yet easy to prepare. Oftentimes, it is made in temples as an offering to the Lord, and later distributed to the devotees as prasad.


Chickpea Savory
2 cups pressure-cooked garbanzo beans (or any of the other lentils mentioned above)
½ cup grated coconut
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon urad dal
1 grated green chili (or 2 to 3 split dried red chilies)
salt to taste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
a pinch of asafetida
6-10 curry leaves

In a pan, heat cooking oil. Add mustard seeds and let them splutter. Reduce to medium heat, add asafoetida, curry leaves, and urad dal. Let them turn a slight golden brown. Add turmeric powder.

If you’re adding the dried red chilies, add them in now. But if you’re adding the grated green chilies, wait until the cooked garbanzo beans are added.

Sauté the beans well for about five minutes. Turn off the burner. Then add freshly grated coconut. (Freshly grated coconut is preferred to the frozen variety for this recipe.)

Serve on its own, or serve with rice.
Diwali (Festival of Lights) is perhaps the most popular of the Indian festivals. It is celebrated throughout India, as well as in the Indian diaspora worldwide about three weeks after Dashahara. Small oil lamps (diyas) are lit and placed in and around the home, including the rooftops and outer walls. The exchange of sweets and displays of fireworks invariably accompany the festival, which primarily honors the victory of good over evil.

Whatever be the reason for celebrating, festivals are great excuses for cooking, sharing, and indulging in special treats! Last year Diwali fell on a working day and I remember inviting my Indian neighbors over for a potluck lunch. I realized that day that even though our relatives may be far away, perhaps in India, a great way to celebrate festivals in the U.S. is to be with close friends.

An entrée called thaladam and a dessert called okkarai are two traditional recipes from Thanjavur that I learnt from a good friend, Meena Balasubramaniam from Chennai, who’s visiting the U.S. I’ve tried them out, and just love them!


Mixed Vegetable Entree
Any combination of mixed vegetables, all cut. Drumsticks, sweet potatoes, and most varieties of roots and beans are great. Avoid beetroot, mushrooms, and okra.
2 tablespoons tamarind
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup grated coconut
3-6 dry red chilies
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons chana dal
3 tablespoons urad dal
3 tablespoons toor dal
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
½ cup jaggery
3 tablespoons oil
a pinch of asafetida

Boil all vegetables, add salt, and set aside.

In a separate pan, heat oil. Add the asafetida, urad dal, chana dal, toor dal, coriander seeds, dry chilies, and sesame seeds and fry for a few minutes till golden brown. Let the mixture cool down. Then, add this mixture and the coconut into a grinder, add a little water, and grind to paste.

Add the paste and tamarind to the boiled vegetables and let it boil for another 5-7 minutes. Finally, add the jaggery to the vegetables.

Serve hot with plain rice and pappadums.


Chickpea Dessert
1 cup chana dal soaked in cold water for an hour
1¼ cup jaggery powdered slightly
½ cup butter or ghee
2-4 cardamoms

Pressure-cook the chana dal. Let it cool and grind it to pulp in a blender. Add the powdered jaggery. Simmer the chana dal and jaggery mixture on medium heat in a non-stick pan until a spongy or fluffy consistency is reached. Do not add water. In another pan, melt the butter or heat the ghee and roast the cashews to a slight golden brown. Then, add the mixture to the okkarai. Add the cardamom powder. Serve hot.

Here’s wishing you all a very happy Navaratri and Diwali.

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian food.