Cook Anupy Singla Dishes On Her Diwali Table

Hindus from New Jersey to New Delhi are celebrating Diwali. The holiday has its own traditions, customs, and most importantly, food. Host Michel Martin speaks with writer and cookbook author Anupy Singla about the dishes she's bringing to the table for this year's Diwali celebration.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, Hindus all over the world are observing Diwali this week. That's the five-day celebration known as the Festival of Lights commemorating a new year. It is the biggest holiday on the Hindu calendar and, like just about every other holiday in just about every culture, it has its own traditions, rituals - and perhaps most important - food.

Here to talk about some of the food and traditions behind Diwali is Anupy Singla. She is a writer and author of the cookbook "Vegan Indian Cooking."

Anupy, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ANUPY SINGLA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just quickly just tell us a little bit more about Diwali? Give us a sense of what the holiday means to Hindus.

SINGLA: Sure. I mean, Diwali is known as the Festival of Lights and it's based on a lunar calendar, so the dates can be confusing. They move around depending on the year, so anywhere from the middle to late October to the middle of November, and this year, Diwali started on November 11th, goes through the 15th, and today is the big day, the 13th.

Diwali is about lighting a candle, not just physically, but also internally, so lighting this flame inside you to go from darkness into light and so, basically, knowledge. You're seeking knowledge. You're seeking to be more knowledgeable and to give up grudges from the year past, to kind of move and look ahead to a new year.

MARTIN: Is this like - how can I say - Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one, if I can put it that way?

SINGLA: It's funny you say that because it feels like that to us. I mean, we really do everything we can for this one holiday. Obviously, Hindus celebrate so many. We take an equal opportunity to party wherever we can, Michel, I mean, throughout the year, but - and eat and enjoy and all of that. But Diwali is the big celebration and many communities and other religious groups do celebrate Diwali. I just want to include that.

But, for Hindus, it's a religious ceremony and time where we go to the temples. We celebrate in that manner with our children. We teach them about Goddess Lakshmi and how, on the main day, the 13th, Badi Diwali - Badi means big in Hindi - Big Diwali - if you light your candles and your diyas at night and turn all the lights on in the house, she won't forget your house. She'll stop by and bless your house with wealth and prosperity.

MARTIN: I understand that presenting sweets to family and neighbors is a big part of the holiday. Do you get to share the sweets when you present?

SINGLA: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: I just want to make sure because you know I was worried about that, just concerned that you got some sweets. Why is that a big part of the holiday and are there specific sweets that are traditional at this time of year?

SINGLA: Well, you know, the thing with sweets is you want to give somebody blessings and, whenever we have blessings in our Puja or our religious ceremonies, we always sweeten somebody's mouth. It's just an act of, just blessings and so sweets are seen that way, too. If you go to any, you know, neighborhoods that are considered little Indias throughout the U.S. - here in Chicago, Devon would come to mind - all the sweet shops are really busy on Diwali and they basically start preparing weeks ahead of time for a time when you go and you can buy a little box of sweets and you can distribute them to all of your friends.

Some of the things that they sell are not sweets that we can actually easily make at home, so it's so nice to be able to go and buy them. But the things that we can make at home include things like a rice pudding, possibly a halva, which is made from either cream of wheat, some butter and also some sugar; or it can be made out of flour, sugar and butter and we can make that. We usually make that in the morning and kind of, along with our Pujas, serve that to our families.

MARTIN: We are hearing about Diwali. We're speaking with author and cookbook writer Anupy Singla. We're talking about how to celebrate Diwali and, you know, talking about some of the treats that are customary, like rice pudding, for example, I'm used to enjoying it with milk or with butter. What if you're a vegan? As we mentioned, that we've previously talked with you about vegan cuisine and treats. Are there vegan alternatives that are also - that people equally enjoy?

SINGLA: Well, you know, it's interesting because Indians traditionally are not naturally vegan. Most are actually vegetarian, or I should say, many are, and especially Hindus during Diwali will never bring meat into the house. It's just seemed and deemed unclean, so there are some desserts that I've actually turned to vegan desserts. So for example, the rice pudding - I have a recipe for that in my first book, "The Indian Slow Cooker," I just make in a slow cooker with soy milk and it turns out delicious. It becomes very creamy, creamier than the dairy milk equivalent. And, also, some of these other recipes, like the halva, I make with vegan margarine alternatives and it's just as good.

So, in my next book, which I'm already working on, I'm trying to take some of these desserts that we've traditionally made and try to make them vegan so we preserve not only the traditional recipes, but we can also incorporate these other alternative ways of eating with these recipes.

MARTIN: But you're saying that it would be traditional for - no meat would be brought into the house during the festival at all, even though - for people who - you're saying that many Indians, eschew meat anyway - but, during Diwali particularly, people would not be eating meat, so a vegetarian-based, you know, cuisine would be customary at this time.

Are there just a couple of dishes that people particularly enjoy?

SINGLA: Oh, yeah. Black lentils is known as the queen of lentils, Kali maa. That is one dish that we always have on Diwali and we also always have something like a rasawala aloo, which is potatoes in a spicy tomato-ginger-garlic broth, so that's something I serve. And, also, pooris, which are basically Indian breads like a roti. Roti is made with whole wheat flour and water mixed together, almost like a pizza dough, and then it's rolled out like a tortilla on the stovetop. We take that dough, roll it out, and then you fry it and that becomes a poori.

So that's what's seen as something a little bit different, a little bit more festive and that's something that I'll be making for my Diwali dinner, which is going to be this Friday.

MARTIN: Anupy, this is almost mean. I'm getting, like, so hungry here listening to you. This is almost like cruel. Couldn't you ship us a couple of things just to overnight...

SINGLA: You know, we've talked about that in the past. I have to come down to D.C.

MARTIN: You know, FedEx.

SINGLA: Yeah. And bring some food for you because that is unfair.

MARTIN: And help us out. Just help us out. It's just so...

SINGLA: Anytime.

MARTIN: It's just so wrong. Before we let you go, I do understand that you are concerned that perhaps Hindus in the diaspora are losing touch with some of their traditional cooking and recipes and why do you feel that way, or do you feel that Diwali is a good time to kind of reconnect with those culinary traditions?

SINGLA: It is a great time to reconnect, and the reason is because everything's become so fast-paced, not just here in the states, in the West, but also in India. I mean, so many of my cousins in India don't know how to make traditional cuisine and foods. And that's why - I was a television reporter here in Chicago for a long time - I quit my day job and started cooking, because my kids were losing their connection with their roots and I think food is just a great way to teach your children, you know, about your culture and about your roots.

I was born in India, but raised in America and so - absolutely - we're losing touch, not because we want to, not because it's intentional. Just because life is busy. But I took it upon myself to preserve a lot of these recipes, put them in these books and, hopefully, it encourages folks out there, especially busy moms like myself and dads, to take a step back and really see how important it is, not only to feed your children the foods of the country that you're in now, but also to connect with the foods that you grew up with. It really changes their kind of way of looking at life and being proud of their heritage and their culture.

So it's a mission that I'm on and I'm getting emails every day, dozens upon dozens, from moms across the country like myself that are second-generation Indian that are here in this country and said, you know, it used to be so hard to make an Indian meal, but now, for example, I can throw it in the slow cooker, or you've made it so easy for me. And so, for me, that just legitimizes the mission that I'm on.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what about - how do you feel about people who are not part of your heritage participating in this celebration at this time of year?

SINGLA: Well, we love it, as long as, you know, what they think about Diwali is kind of accurate. I know some of the news feeds have been - oh, you know, it's a holiday where you clean your house and you wear new clothes. It's really not just that. It's about this, you know, prevailance of - over evil - this truth over evil. So, if you understand it, we really just appreciate someone stopping and knowing that we celebrate this holiday and saying Happy Diwali to us.

So, absolutely, participate. Go to the temples if you have one nearby, a Hindu temple. We always welcome anybody visiting to come and pray with us, so...

MARTIN: And bring sweets.

SINGLA: ...it's an equal opportunity. And bring sweets, please.

MARTIN: And bring sweets.

SINGLA: And eat them. Eat lots of them.

MARTIN: That's right. Well, Happy Diwali to you. I should have said that.

SINGLA: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: That was Anupy Singla. She is the author of the cookbook "Vegan Indian Cooking," among others, and she was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Anupy, thanks for joining us, once again. Happy Diwali.

SINGLA: Happy Diwali. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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