Flash in the Pan

Culinary pleasures of Diwali

| November 28, 2002

Many different cultures have found reason to celebrate light this time of year. And they have found many justifications for this, beyond the simple fact that it’s so friggin’ dark all the time. Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza all come quickly to mind, but there are others.

Consider the Hindu holiday Diwali, in which millions of candles are lit across the Indian subcontinent. Some light the candles to drive away the dark cloud of ignorance that threatens humanity. Some celebrants light rows of candles in their windows to illuminate the way for Rama to come to their homes, in a symbolic re-enactment of Rama’s heroic return after defeating the evil demon Ravana and rescuing the babe, Sita. By most accounts, Rama was a highly righteous fella who always made the best choice for the best reasons—something we all could stand to do in our own lives, from time to time. Some, however, argue that the best thing about Rama was his doubly-righteous sidekick. No, not Sita—I’m talking about Hanuman, the faithful and multi-talented monkey.

What’s interesting about these dark-day holidays is that they also emphasize material items. Christmas has become the climax of our retail economy, Chanukah involves a gift a day for over a week, and Diwali is no exception. But rather than gifts per se, the nod to materialism comes by way of honoring mother Laksmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, who emerged from an ocean of milk to bring these gifts to humanity.

Meanwhile, for many rural folks in India, Diwali is a celebration of the harvest, a la Thanksgiving. Maybe this is a clue towards the common theme of materialism and light. Here’s my theory: With winter coming, now is the time to hunker down, cozy up, count your potatoes, and do things to boost your attitude against the lowering boom of darkness. Things like light, gifts, and feasting all increase cheer and community bonding.

The most important take-home message, from my completely unbiased vantage, is that wherever you are, harvest season brings out the best eats. This might explain the abundance of exquisite grub in store last week at the Missoula Diwali festival, an annual event put on by the Missoula Indian Association.

Vegetable curry, chickpeas in tomato sauce, tandoori chicken, perfectly prepared basmati rice…all kinds of little extra things to sprinkle on top, such as coconut flakes and cashews. There is a German word, gestalt, that describes something that becomes greater than the sum of its parts...when it all comes together just right. In the case of food, gestalt is the result of top-notch ingredients prepared to perfection, mouthful after mouthful. And for some reason, this kind of food doesn’t seem to take up much space in your belly. We all know what that means: Three plates into the evening, I was not quite ready for my cup of chai and dessert.

After the meal, I snooped around for some of the aforementioned recipes. I got more than I have space to print today, but I will get to them soon. Today I will focus on the rice.

While some may think that rice is just the stuff you put underneath the real food to spread out the flavor, I suspect that in the case of this particular Diwali feast, the rice was the glue behind the gestalt glitter. This rice was like a magic carpet beneath the food, elevating it to the highest of spheres.

Visually, this rice was not without glitter either. It was...well...it was pink, and orange, and many shades between. I’ve never eaten rice that looked so much like candy. What? You got a problem with pink rice? What, exactly, are you implying? Why not light up the rice during the festival of light? Anyway, whatever you think about the pink, it was the subtle-yet-potent flavor within those luminescent grains that concerned me.

I tracked down Raj, the maker of the rice, to learn the secret. The pink color is from tandoori massala, one of many types of massala, or spice mix, that are essential to Indian cooking. Although tandoori massala is not available in Missoula (you can order it off the web at http://www.patelbrothersusa.com/new/), there are other massalas available in bulk at the Good Food Store, which Raj noted as a great place to shop for Indian ingredients.

First, fry your spices in oil. Raj recommends cumin, cinnamon, bay leaf, star anise, cloves, cardamom, and mustard seeds, and he uses canola oil. Once all of those spices have gotten to know each other in the pan, add some garam massala, and then kill the heat.

Meanwhile, take your white basmati rice and rinse it off. This removes the starch that coats the rice, so it doesn’t stick together in clumps.

Put your rinsed rice in a rice cooker or pot. Then stir in the oil and spices. Then, if you want to go with the pink look, stir in a little tandoori massala powder. Then, add the correct amount of water, and cook it.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: Flash@missoulanews.com

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