Holi: ‘The four dishes that remind me of celebrating the Festival of Colours in India’

25 Mar 2024

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You probably know the festival of Holi for all the glorious paint throwing, but any Hindu person will tell you there’s another key component to the celebrations, too – the food. 

Holi is a celebration of spring within the Hindu religion, and, also known as the Festival of Colours, is a joyous occasion where communities across India (and the world) come together to sing, dance, play, and eat. 

Marked by a full moon in their calendar month of Phalguna, which usually falls in the middle of March, the festival is about looking towards the future and celebrating the turn of the season, and any good harvest that comes with it. 

Speaking to Twisted, Vivek Singh - founder of the hugely popular Cinnamon Collection of restaurants, author of six cookbooks, and regular Saturday Kitchen star - tells of his own fond memories of Holi growing up in India. 

Vivek Singh fondly remembers Holi in India (Credit: The Cinnamon Collection)

Vivek Singh’s Holi memories

Experiencing the festival as a child in the small coal-mining community of Asansol, West Bengal, sounds pretty special. Throughout the day, as many as 300 people would descend on the bungalow Vivek’s father (a local engineer) was managing in the community, and celebrate in their front garden. 

The day would start with young children visiting the grounds of houses in the community and playing with wet colour. Then, as the day progressed, more grown-ups would join in swathes of 20 and 30 and celebrate alongside them. 

“Compared to other [festivals], this was not about the God or the Goddess or the Deity, it was about the people taking part,” Vivek reflects. “It was people letting their hair down – lots of fun, lots of pranks, and most of all, lots of eating!”

Holi food

So, what were some of the dishes Vivek would eat at Holi every year, without fail?  

“People know Holi for colour and water and all that good stuff, but food was the biggest part of all celebrations for me, growing up,” Vivek says. 

Before the celebrations began, cooking and busy food preparation would mark its imminent arrival. 

“All the ladies in the colony would have gathered a couple of days before to start preparing pickles and chutneys for the meal - to be served with samosas and things like that,” he says. 

The Holi offering would be days in the making (Credit: The Cinnamon Club)

“The night before Holi, my dad would be sitting with a big platter of dried fruits which he would be cutting into small pieces so that it could serve lots of people. My mother would be baking lots of different fried snacks and biscuits until late at night. 

“Then, in the morning, I’d come downstairs and she would be frying samosas, or anything that needed to be finished last minute, so the smell of oil and spices would be the first thing that would hit me as celebrations began.”

There aren’t a huge amount of specific dishes cooked to mark Holi, rather the occasion is about abundance - and plenty of food is needed to fuel the playing, the chef explains. 

However, since moving to the UK and celebrating Holi at his restaurants, Vivek has noticed a few dishes feel particularly nostalgic to him. 

Thandai 

Thandai is a traditional drink enjoyed over Holi (Credit: Getty)

“Thandai literally means ‘something that pulls you back’. It’s made from a very fine paste of lots of spices like peppercorns, cardamom, saffron, poppy seeds, and almonds, which is strained and becomes this really cooling drink with milk. 

“It’s spicy on the throat but very sweet on the palate, and has ingredients that are quite hot and warm – the pepper, and the saffron – yet simultaneously cools you down. That makes it perfect for a spring festival like Holi.

“For the grown-ups, there’s a naughtier version [called bhaang] made with hemp leaves, and that’s another kind of high! The drink started off being made in Baramati as an offering to Lord Shiva, but it’s still popular across northern India [to this day].

“So, the adults will be having that and doing all sorts of tricks, and the children will be having the virgin version, but still running around like crazy, throwing water balloons! 

“Basically, Holi starts off as really civilised and ends up being a massive, big party!”

Dahi Vada

Dahi Vada are a snack commonly eaten during Holi (Credit: Getty)

“This is probably the most traditional recipe you will see at Holi. It’s basically a lentil dumpling that you’d see in every single house – at least in the part of the country that I was growing up in.

“Lentils are very readily accessible in the northern part of the country, which explains why this dish is made during celebrations. 

“One of the oldest ways of cooking lentils in India is actually making a paste, fermenting it and then making doughnuts out of it.

“I’m talking about the old Indian civilisation, way before the Mughals – this could be even three 400 or 500 BCE. That’s how old this recipe is! 

“Lentils are very native to India in general. In southern India, you have things like dosa, and they’ve been around for thousands of years. So, perhaps [that’s why this recipe is cooked on Holi]. It’s a very indigenous thing. 

The lentil doughnuts are often consumed during celebrations across northern India (Credit: Getty)

“To make it, lentils are beaten up into a paste and shaped into balls, then fried and soaked in a very thin dressing made out of yoghurt and cumin. 

“Then, it’s topped with more sweetened yoghurt and lashings of coriander and chutney.

“Holi is at the start of spring, and usually the sun is just about starting to come out, so it gets a bit warmer under the collar and you’re usually starting to feel the heat. 

“Like the Thandai, this is served because it’s cooling - you’ve got the yoghurt contrasting with the spices. The combination of flavours really is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Malpua

Malpua are sweet pancakes - and they're Vivek's favourite Holi snack (Credit: Getty)

“To me, this dish is Holi, and everything else can come and go. 

“It’s a pancake that my mother makes, and she still makes it today, actually. Even if she is alone, if she’s celebrating, she’ll make five of these – and that’s the very minimum (that’s one for herself, one for dad and one for each sibling, and then she’ll feed them to the crows and the cows and the cats!).

“Unless she’s made that, it’s not Holi. This is true for a lot of families, but particularly mine! 

“Every single ingredient in this recipe is easily accessible, except cardamom, which only grows in south India, but is consumed and used everywhere as a treat.

"In fact, if you look at the other dishes I mentioned [we make at Holi], you’ll notice the ingredients are inexpensive – flour, salt, lentils. However, there are also ingredients in there, like cardamom, which make it extra special. 

Malpua pancakes being made (Credit: Getty)

“Each family might have a slightly different recipe for it, but my mum’s is very simple. It’s one part flour, half of sugar, a few cardamom pods and a little bit of milk. 

“Because I like banana, she would sometimes mash a couple of bananas in with it to make a batter and then deep fry it. It would smell like when you pass a doughnut shop - incredibly attractive!

“They’re crisp at the edges and gooey in the middle. There wouldn't be any toppings, you don’t need them.

“As a child, I remember you’d eat these as soon as they were ready until the moment they ran out. They’d just keep coming out of a big vat of oil and people would be running over and taking them straight away. 

“When I was younger, I was too busy running around and consuming sugar to help my mum cooking, and you didn’t really see boys in the kitchen. But now, I take every opportunity to cook these with my mum.”

Lamb curry

A meat curry is a sign of a special occasion, for many, too (Credit: Getty)

“For Holi, there would be a makeshift fire set up in one corner of the garden, and my dad would take charge of a lamb curry, whilst my mum would make the rice, the veg, or whatever we were having with it.

“Let me tell you, you’d smell that curry for at least three hours whilst it was cooking, before you could eat it, and you’d just be waiting!

“It would be cooking a little away from where the children were playing, and would become part of the potluck feast that we all enjoyed. 

“The closest to a curry people [over here] would have come across would probably be a lamb bhuna. It was usually quite rich, spicy, with caramelised onion, and semi-dry. 

“If you ate meat, and you could afford it, families would have a curry like this, otherwise they’d make a vegetable curry, fried fish, [or these days], paneer. 


“Holi is one of the few Hindu festivals where it is okay to consume meat, because most other Indian festivals would be fully vegetarian, and the whole idea of killing for recreation wouldn’t be encouraged. 

“The mere presence of meat or fish as an offering to your guests elevates the importance of the occasion to another level.

“It’s not something you eat every day in Indian civilisation. It ties into the fact that Holi is about letting go."

So, there you have it –Vivek's favourite Holi dishes. Hopefully this inspires you to cook up something delicious today and mark the occasion!

Featured image: The Cinnamon Collection

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