You can’t celebrate Diwali in Beijing.
Half of what you’d do during Diwali in India is illegal here (fireworks, gambling, narcotics).
Much of it is reliant on a critical mass of community, which sadly does not quite exist in Beijing.
The other half requires some rather convoluted planning, copious kitchen space, and an irreverence toward “tradition.”
For me, even getting to this “Half-Diwali” took a few months, several Taobao stores, and a metric ton of patience.
Now, hopefully, with this post, you can too!
You may ask why — is it really worth so much trouble to feel, for a day, that you may be somewhere resembling home?
Yes, yes it is.
It’s Diwali. It’s worth it.
Cooking an Indian meal here, be it a simple Kerala Beef Fry or a lush Diwali spread, isn’t something you can do spontaneously unless you’ve set up your kitchen at least a reasonable amount of time in advance, and “unlearnt” some shortcuts you may be used to elsewhere.
- A Taobao account. This is absolutely necessary for many, many ingredients. Bookmark Indian Food House and Eastern Mart for most of the essentials.
- A Mortar and Pestle, or Food Processor. There is lots of spice grinding and paste-making in Indian food. A coffee bean grinder will do, in a pinch.
- A basic wok, a saucepan, or better yet: a pressure cooker. I use a Lodge dutch oven, and an electric cooker.
- A tiny pan used for tempering, or “tadka”: this is the secret step to delicious Indian food that many miss.
- Make a batch of Garam masala, the catch-all spice that brings many Punjabi dishes to life. Here’s my go-to recipe, and collecting the ingredients will pretty much set you up for most meals. Garam Masala stores really well. Get whole spices, not pre-ground:
- Green / Black Cardamom (Available on Taobao, or the Sanyuanli market in Beijing)
- Coriander seeds (Available on Taobao, or the Sanyuanli market in Beijing)
- Cumin seeds (any supermarket, Chinese or foreign)
- Black peppercorns (anywhere, really)
- Cloves (Foreign supermarkets should have this)
- Fennel seed (Taobao, or Sanyuanli)
- Cinnamon Sticks (Anywhere! Note that the Chinese version is technically cassia bark, and is milder than normal cinnamon)
- Star Anise (Anywhere!)
- Nutmeg / Mace (Taobao is your best bet)
- Oil. Canola, Sunflower will be your staples. If you want to get fancy (and authentic), make your own batch of ghee (clarified butter), and keep a bottle of mustard and coconut oil handy for some Southern-style cooking.
- Buy some Turmeric Powder.
For a festive Diwali meal, I usually go with a true syncretic (and non-traditional) mix of North and South Indian tradition. A thick, hearty Dal Makhani (buttery lentils), Some Chettinadu Chicken, and a pilaf.
And then, the heart of the matter: dessert. Seven Cup Sweet, and a Carrot Halwa.
Seven Cup Sweet:
Seven Cup Sweet is so named because it’s made from seven cups of different ingredients.
This, sadly, is a tragic lie.
Four of those “cups” are sugar. One is butter.
If you’re still reading, the remaining two are one cup each of “besan” or chickpea flour (you can make this at home, and I highly recommend it) and milk. There’s also an eighth “shadow” cup of cashew nuts, grated coconut, and a pinch of cardamom powder.
The result is a pleasing gooey fudge that can be set into bars and stored forever.
The crowning glory of Indian sweets. Carrots and caramelized syrup with milk fudge, nuts and some cardamom. It’s the greatest thing ever, and your personal portal to Diwali bliss.