Chef Sanjeev Kapoor. Image Credit:

Who doesn’t love the festivities, the feasts and those intimate moments with family that form the essence of Diwali?

Yet, behind that Insta-ready lip-smacking table of treats during the Indian festival lies a culinary undertaking that requires days of prep and military precision. Planning a Diwali menu is often a test in patience, deft workmanship and a little bit of magic, some would say.

Gulf News tabloid! decided to lend a little hand with at least the first two in the criteria with a little a help from some of the top chefs in the business, including Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor, along with the genius behind the Tresind and Carnival brands, chef Himanshu Saini, and the talent behind the funky homegrown Moombai & Co, chef Ashish Kumar.

Prep, prep, prep

Kapoor says that while food is an integral part of Diwali celebrations, “spending quality time with your loved ones is more important,” he says. “Don’t try to overdo things, keep your menu simple and prep in advance so you can enjoy these precious, celebratory moments with family,”

Kumar agrees. “When hosting family and friends for Diwali one must start to prepare at least a week in advance,” he suggests, adding that at least a few desserts and Diwali snacks or savouries should be prepared two or three days before the gathering to keep things on track for the main day.

However, there’s only so much you can prep in advance, so do clear out those diaries for a morning of furious cooking. “The cooking should only happen on the same day,” stresses Saini. “The preparations can happen a day in advance but cooking should be on same day as one should keep everything fresh.”

What’s cooking?

Don’t leave it until the last minute to plan and stress over what your Diwali feast needs to incorporate.

“[The menu] would depend upon what the occasion is and who the guests are, but contemporary Indian food always works at a dinner party. Just make sure you keep the menu fresh, easy to eat, pleasing to the eye and of course flavoursome,” suggests Kapoor.

“The most fool proof way is to pick dishes that you are familiar with and comfortable cooking. Since you are catering to a large party, it also makes sense to pick dishes which can be prepped in advance and just heated through or presented in time when your guests arrive. I also suggest focusing more on serving up a variety of starters and limiting the number of main course dishes. It works better for a large party,” he added.

To keep the menu varied and not have you sprinting into the kitchen every few minutes, Moombai & Co’s chef Kumar suggests adding a lot of light snacks to the menu, especially when that intimate gathering turns into a full-fledged party.

“Add on more savouries like bhel mix, chivda mix, dry gujjias, namak paare, besan sev, mathri etc,” he advises.

Those looking for weighty starters to add to their list of dishes, Saini has his menu ready at hand. “First, you have to have samosas and kachoris for snacks/starters as well as dahi bhalla, to have a range of temperatures before digging into the main courses,” he suggests. “For the main course, it would have to be aloo puri and pulao with raita. And to finish the feast off, desserts like gulab jamun and jalebi would be perfect.”

If time is a constraint then stick to desserts that can be easily made such as kheer, halwa and some ice cream.

Is there time for presentation?

“When hosting for dinner for 15 or more... presentation might take a backseat, especially when [cooking] at home because of the timing insufficiency,” says Kumar. “However, I feel if every dish and dessert is made with all the flavours intact, laced with all proper spices, cooked well to perfection even this simplicity can win a lot of awe and appreciation.”

Saini agrees, adding that people should go all out only if you have the time. “The presentation should be secondary, one should concentrate on the taste of the dish. The food should be fresh and should be served hot as and when prepared,” he says.

Common mistakes to avoid

Both Saini and Kumar advise going easy on the stomach lining.

“I would say that often people use way too much fried and oily dishes, which eventually will become too much. We are human after all,” says Saini.

“I feel the most common mistakes one makes while planning a Diwali menu is adding lots of heavy dishes to it especially in the main section,” adds Kumar. “What I feel is Diwali is much of a festival where people would snack more than stuffing heavily post just one dish. Stuffing just one heavy dish and sloshing on the couch is not one would like to do on Diwali.”

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QUICKFIRE WITH SANJEEV KAPOOR

Who he is

He’s an Indian celebrity chef with a number of restaurants in the UAE and around the world. He’s also an entrepreneur and television personality.

Your earliest Diwali food memory

“I have some sweet memories of my mother making an array of mithais [sweets] and farsaan [savouries] during Diwali. With my siblings and me gorging on them on pretext of helping out in the kitchen. The besan laddoos were and still are my favourite.”

The kind of dishes Diwali inspires you to cook

“Like most other festivals Diwali too is a time where food takes centrestage. The traditional dishes that we have been making since I was a child are a must each year: chaklis, bhakawradi, rava and besan laddoos, shakkarparas and karanjis are definitely on my list of Diwali eats each year. Other than that I also like to experiment by putting slight twists to the traditional recipes by making never-seen-before versions of it. One of my favourite recipes is a Tawa Mithai Chaat, which is a great way to serve up all pedas, barfis and literally any mithai during Diwali. You can find the recipe on my YouTube channel Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana.”

We hear you’re going to be a Diwali masterclass this year at the Taste of Abu Dhabi. Tell us more.

“Surprises are great; you need to stay tuned to what’s happening at The Taste of Abu Dhabi this year to find out what’s in store.”

If you could host a Diwali dinner with any three people, who would you pick?

“My ideal Diwali is one that is celebrated with friends and family. A close knit group of friends I have had for the longest time — just bonding with them over food, music and laughter is really the best Diwali dinner party for me.”

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QUICKFIRE WITH ASHISH KUMAR

Who he is

He’s the head chef of Dubai restaurant Moombai and Co.

Your earliest Diwali food memory

“Undoubtedly of my favourite dessert, the barfi, dating back to my childhood days still freshly enclosed within my heart. Just the thought of Diwali special food tinkles my taste buds to reminiscences of barfi.”

The culinary inspiration that strikes during Diwali

“Because of its arrival during the onset of the cold weather, it inspires me to cook desserts dishes with more of dry fruits… because they are nutritionally so good for the body to sustain the changes in the weather — immunity wise as well as for the skin.”

A dish that absolutely needs to be on the Diwali menu

“Ladoos, in any variation, like boondi, besan, motichoor etc.”

A Diwali dinner with any three people of your choice

“I would like to invite my father, who is also my idol. I have grown up watching him host such good Diwali dinners back home. I still cherish them, and this would be a great opportunity for me to make him feel that I am just his imitation. Second would be my wife, undoubtedly, because she is undeniably an inseparable part of me and while at any party whether as a guest or as a host, without her it would be as meaningless as any sweet dish without the sugar.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I would more than love to host His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Vice-President and Prime Minister of the

UAE and Ruler of Dubai] for Diwali. His work to raise, empower and develop Dubai is superbly commendable. It would be a dream come true for me.”

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QUICKFIRE WITH HIMANSHU SAINI

Who he is

He’s the corporate chef of Passion F&B that operates Tresind and Carnival restaurants in the UAE.

Your earliest Diwali food memory

“As a tradition, friends and family visit each other’s homes to exchange sweets and dry fruits. This was the first thing that I remember about Diwali.”

Dishes that you are inspired to cook up during Diwali

“I tend to cook dishes inspired by street food, like different kinds of chaat and Indian comfort food, like khichdi.”

A dish that absolutely needs to be on the Diwali menu

“Dahi bhalla without a doubt.”

A classic Diwali dish you despise

“Ha! Laddoo.”

If you could host a Diwali dinner with three people of your choice who would they be

“I have thought of this before and I would only choose two, Roger Federer, because of his love for vegetarian Indian food. He would be a pleasure to cook for. And Chris Martin because I would want him to make Hindi song on Diwali. Imagine that, it would be amazing.”

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DIWALI RECIPES

RECIPE 1: Warm saffron peda, sesame boondi laddoo, yogurt sorbet

By Chef Himanshu Saini, Corporate Chef, Passion F&B (Tresind and Carnival)

For saffron peda

Ingredients

Milk 1 litre

Sugar 80gms

Lemon Salt 1gm

Saffron 5 strands

Ghee 25gms

Method

Reduce milk on a low flame to 50 per cent. Add the lemon salt and mix. Reduce it further till it reaches a dry consistency. Add sugar, saffron and ghee and mix it continuously on a low flame.

For yogurt sorbet

Ingredients

Yoghurt 250gms

Rose water 20ml

Cardamom powder 5gm

Sugar 70gm

Water 250ml

Method

Add all the ingredients together in a bowl and mix it thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to an ice-cream machine and churn it for 45 minutes.

For boondi laddoo

Ingredients

Besan 115gms

Water 300ml

Ghee to fry

Cardamom 2.5gms

Sugar 250 gms

Toasted sesame seeds 2gms

Pistachio flakes 2gms

Method

1. Add besan to a mixing bowl and pour water as needed to make a free flowing batter that is not too thin or too thick.

2. Heat up the ghee in a kadai until hot enough. Pour little batter over the boondi ladle to check if the consistency is right. You must get them right in a round shape.

3. Pour one large ladle of batter over the boondi sieve and spread the batter continuously to drop the batter in the shape of boondi (drops).

4. Fry just until the bubbles begin to reduce. Do not fry the boondi till crunchy. Drain them to a large bowl.

Syrup: Add sugar and water to a pot. Boil until one string consistency. Turn off the stove. Add cloves and cardamom powder. Mix well.

Soak the boondi in the syrup and place it on a paper to soak.

Plating: Place the saffron peda crumble neatly on the plate. Add a quenelle of yoghurt sorbet on the plate and add mini boondi. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and pistachio flakes.

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RECIPE 2: Barfi

By Chef Ashish Kumar, Moombai & Co.

Ingredients

Castor Sugar 250 gms

Double Cream 150 ml

Liquid Glucose 150 gms

White Chocolate 150 gms

Ground Almond 150 gms

Peeled Pistachio 50 gms

Butter 15 gms

Rose Petal - Dried 5 gms

Sliced Almond 30 gms

Broken Cashew nut 20 gms

Method

1. Mix first three ingredients and put it on slow flame, attach a candy thermometer and simmer until the temperature reaches 110 Celsius.

2. From time to time, keep scraping the sides with a heat-proof spatula.

3. Meanwhile, weigh all the other ingredients and mix it in the hot mix of sugar, glucose and cream.

4. Ensure it’s a smooth mix and then spread it on a flat tray.

5. Let it cool down and then cut into diamond shapes.

6. Store in air-tight containers.