The streets of New Delhi are filled with excitement this week of Diwali. Rows of glowing lanterns swayed playfully above the heads of shoppers at food stalls, and vendors stuffed newspaper tubes with crispy chaat and sautéed lacy swirls of batter with new enthusiasm. After days of scrubbing and dusting, people open their doors to holiday parties, out-of-town guests and neighbors with gifts. Amid all these festivities, my childhood home was quiet—completely devoid of the celebratory spirit of the Indian New Year and the bounty that comes with it: new clothes, exquisite meals, and gorgeous sweets called mithai in Hindi.
For many families in the Indian subcontinent and the diaspora, our ancient culture of lavish gift-giving and feasting is out of place in their wallets. The economic stress of the holidays is real, and in the midst of a global recession, I am reminded of how people can use what they have to stay happy despite the uncertainty of the future.
Growing up in a lower-middle nuclear family, I saw how my parents changed cultural norms to accommodate what we could afford. Instead of buying new clothes, my mom sewed old sarees onto new ones for me. Instead of having a dinner party, we prepared a special for our small family dinner. If we can’t afford store-bought mithai, we’ll savor every bite of homemade kheer, a sweet rice pudding.
Diwali is known for its generosity, and it is customary to send a box of mitai to neighbors and family members, which in South Asia is equivalent to a box of chocolates. Although we couldn’t afford mithai boxes, we were lucky enough to receive them. I love peeking under the lid of the mithai box: fondant squares of pistachio burfi dyed grass green, elongated diamonds of kaju katli scented with cardamom, topped with edible filigree flakes and my favorite Glittering Golden Dome or Besan Ladou.
My mom would let us choose our favorite mithai for later.Then she would put the rest of the candy on a stainless steel plate covered with a nice cloth and send me to
Share with neighbors. As a child, I put on a happy face, but inside I was ashamed to offer the re-gifted mitae. I want to be like my aunts and uncles, buying bags of nuts every year to distribute to different families. I dream of waltzing to my friend’s door, my arms full of gift boxes from the best mithai stores in New Delhi, not little steel plates in my hands. The neighbors gratefully accepted our mithai and always refilled the plates before sending them back in return. But it’s bittersweet. It’s not just the cash crunch, but the nervousness that can’t live up to the holiday hype. Cheerful greetings were exchanged on the streets of our community, but at home, not having enough economic reality turned into a sullen resentment.
I grew up determined to make my own money and dreamed of a home where no one was worried about not having enough. I’ve been cooking for others since I was eight, so being a chef felt natural. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in hotel school, I applied to be trained as a mithaiwalas at my favorite mithai shop in New Delhi, but no one would accept me. Why? Since I’m a woman, they have a “men only” kitchen policy. So, before heading to the US for a degree in food studies, I pursued the art of delicious cooking. Arriving here, I realized that I could use my knowledge as a savory and pastry chef to make my own mithai. I would mix traditional Indian desserts with western pastries I’ve been exposed to, using ingredients at my fingertips.
Ironically, now that I have the means to throw a Diwali party for my friends and family, I haven’t celebrated Diwali at home in fifteen years. I own my own restaurant TAGMO in NYC with a thriving mithai business. Fall is still our busiest season – my workplace is like a surrogate home. This year, I saw how the post-pandemic economic situation has changed the way people celebrate Diwali. Thoughtful gestures are worth more than flashy displays. And we’re all more honest about our limitations — socially and economically. It wasn’t stress-free, but it was also filled with great joy this time around. I host family-style meals in my restaurant every night and make my own mithai boxes that no one dares to give away.