The Five Spices at the Heart of Diwali

Jeremy Daniel

One of India’s biggest holidays, Diwali, is now a global phenomenon. People all around the world celebrate its theme of light triumphing over darkness. Traditions include a deep cleansing of the home, gift-giving, and fireworks displays. Of course, delicious food, especially sweets, are a must, and there are endless delectable desserts and treats to savor. How much do you know about the flavors that are at the heart of Diwali?

As the festival inches ever closer, you can impress your friends and family with your knowledge of the spices that give so many Diwali treats their distinctive taste.

Cinnamon

This aromatic and woodsy flavor comes from the inner bark of several tree species. There are reports of cinnamon being traded as early as 2000 BCE in ancient Egypt. It was so highly prized that traders kept their source secret for centuries, and only in the 13th century did the world learn of its origins in the Far East. Though cinnamon is most often used in savory dishes, for this Diwali, you may want to try a fusiony approach that takes advantage of cinnamon’s warming qualities. For instance, Prem K Pogakula, chef at The Imperial hotel in New Delhi, has created bhapa misti doi with apple and cinnamon halwa, a modern mash-up of two common snacks.

Cardamom

Native to the Indian subcontinent, cardamom often turns up in savory dishes like curries and biryani, but it also appears in many desserts, including the rice-pudding-like dishes payasam, from South India, and kheer, from the north. Another way to showcase the spice is in Saveur magazine’s rendition of malpura—ricotta pancakes soaked in cardamom syrup.

Rose Water

The distinctive flavor of rose water appears in many desserts, sometimes giving them a slight pinkish hue. The use of rose water is a sign of the Persian influence in Indian cuisine, especially in the north. Look for it in jalebis, gulab jamuns (deep-fried cheese balls in sugar syrup), and shrikhand (a creamy dessert made with strained yogurt).

Saffron

The world’s most costly spice by weight, saffron comes from the delicate stigmas, or threads, of the saffron crocus flower. Most historians believe that saffron originated in Iran; its name comes from the Arabic word zafaran, which means “yellow.” One of the most iconic Diwali desserts is the jalebi, sticky and sweet fried pieces of dough that shine after they are dipped in saffron-infused sugar syrup.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg makes appearances in savory spice mixes, perhaps most famously in garam masala, as well as in puran poli (lentil flatbread) and other dishes, both savory and sweet. Try a piece of mixed-fruit barfi (fudge) laced with nutmeg this year for melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.