Sweet and savoury foods for the exuberant Indian Holi festival

Posted By Keren Lavelle
Tags: Keren Lavelle, Holi, Colours, Thandai, Lassi, Sweet, Savoury
The Hindu religious festival Holi – the festival of the colours – originated in north India, and can last for days. It is a northern hemisphere spring festival, where the spring harvest and the return of the longer days of sunlight are celebrated. It’s a time for throwing away inhibitions, and for throwing brightly coloured powders (known as gulal) at other people, and for squirting coloured water at them from water pistols or from water-filled balloons. The legend behind this is that Lord Krishna, as a mischievous young boy, used to play pranks on milkmaids by throwing coloured water over them. This spectacular-looking and joyous celebration has spread to other parts of India and around the world. In Australian cities, there are several public celebrations of Holi this March, including two in Sydney.
Holi image - Photo credit: Ben Beiske / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Another religious theme behind the festival is of the triumph of good over evil, and in India, bonfires are lit to signify this. For many, Holi is also a time of forgiving others and forgetting grudges; a time for making a fresh start. It’s possibly the only Hindu/Sikh festival where intoxication is not regarded as a bad thing; lassis (yoghurt drinks) can be laced with bhang (marijuana leaf tips and buds). As well as an explosion of colour, Holi is all about playing good-natured practical jokes, games, and generally having fun, before settling down to a feast of family favourites. Holi provides an excuse to eat yourself silly on treats, in particular, sweets; on special foods that some say are designed to excite the senses and enliven the spirits. 

Regional and family traditions of Holi food vary; in Gujarat, for example, a sweet version of the rice and lentil dish khichdi, and sweets like the milk-based kheer and halva are prepared. Another sweet snack, shakarpara, deep-fried dough pieces coated with sugar syrup, is popular in Maharashtra; as is puran poli, a flatbread stuffed with sweetened and spiced lentils, served with ghee (clarified butter). 

A sweet, milky drink thickened with ground almonds, thandai is a Holi staple in many places (with or without bhang), and flavoured with saffron, cardamom and rose petals. Like a dessert version of samosas, the north Indian speciality gujiyas are prepared for Holi. These are deep-fried wheat flour pastries filled with a mixture of coconut, dried fruit and nuts. Sweet rice is also a customary extravagance – coloured golden with saffron strands, sweetened with jaggery (palm sugar), and incorporating nuts, sultanas, and aromatic spices like cardamom. 

Savoury treats made for Holi include dahi vada – a chaat (snack food), created by deep-frying lentil fritters and then immersing them in a thick yoghurt (known as dahi) for at least a couple of hours. The dish is then sprinkled with fresh coriander or mint leaves, chilli powder, the special spice mix known as chaat masala, green chillies and other condiments, before serving. 

Another delicious snack, methi mathri, are like deep-fried savoury biscuits, made from a mixture of wheat flour and besan (chickpea flour), and flavoured with chilli powder, dried fenugreek seeds and carom seeds.

A variation on this deep-fried theme are kachoris – round, puffed pastries filled with ground mung beans and spices, which can be made in advance, and just warmed up in the oven when guests arrive. Alternatively, you can make a baked version, to avoid the extra calories added by frying.

But hey, it’s Holi– not a time for counting calories –but a time to let yourself go, to go free for enjoyment. Happy Holi!

Zoe PerrettI'm Keren Lavelle, a freelance food and travel writer/editor, who eats, enjoys and loves to cook Indian cuisine. Based in Sydney, I had to renovate my kitchen to make space for an ever-expanding cookbook library, jars of spices and mysterious lentils, and an increasing suite of cooking appliances. I really relish the vastly diverse nature and multi-layered flavours of Indian cuisine, and I’m pleased to see it coming into its rightful place of importance in the panoply of food we have in Australia.

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