Neelam Jain celebrates Indian culture
at the holidays and all year long
Photography By Albert Yee
Laying her spoon on the counter, Neelam Jain turns to her students and says, “Okay, I’m going to show you how I do it at home.” She grabs the hot pot from the stove with her hands and raises it. Giving it a quick roll, she tosses the chunks of cauliflower, potatoes and tomatoes into the air. They plop neatly back into the pot.
Jain teaches Indian vegetarian cooking classes at the Community School of New Hope-Solebury in Bucks County. Tonight is the first in her three-part series. The dish Jain’s demonstrating is aloo gobhi, a hearty stir-fry of cauliflower and potatoes. Along with breads, such as naan, roti, puri and paratha, this is one of the many foods prepared during the celebration of the fall holiday Diwali. But the real culinary stars of Diwali are the sweets and snacks, says Jain. Laddu (or laddoo), halwa, jalebi, rasgulla and kheer [see sidebar] are just a few. Jain, who grew up in New Delhi before moving to the United States in 1986, dresses in the traditional Indian outfit shalwar kameez, a long tunic over loose-fitting trousers. She’s not a chef but she is an accomplished home cook. “My late husband so loved my cooking, he convinced the head of the evening community school to have me teach. So here I am,” she says as she hands out tonight’s recipes. She’s been teaching hungry students to make her signature dishes ever since that first session in March 2011.
The lesson moves on to chana masala, a spicy chickpea dish. Jain adds chopped tomatoes and fresh green chiles to a large pot of chickpeas on the stove. She doesn’t measure the spices as she adds them to her simmering stew. (A quick check of her recipe confirms that Jain thoughtfully included the amounts of cumin, turmeric, coriander, red chile powder, asafetida and salt for her less practiced students.) “In south India, garlic and onions are not used,” Jain says. “Instead they use asafetida. It’s strong-smelling but when cooked imparts the flavors of garlic and onion.” Even so, she adds some chopped onions. Peering into the pot, Wilma Coder, a newbie to Indian food, admires the vibrant colors and complex aroma. Later, when we’re eating, she’s surprised that the chana masala isn’t spicy or hot.
Despite its many spices, Jain says, Indian food is not necessarily hot, though the spice level is easily customized. “This is my magic jar,” says Jain as she holds up a container. It’s a mixture of fresh ginger, jalapeño peppers, golden raisins and fresh lemon juice. “When you want something a little hotter, just add a pinch of this.” The lemon juice and raisins tame the ginger and jalapeños, delivering the right amount of heat to our food.
Before the class ends, Jain invites us to join her the following Sunday for the Diwali festival at nearby Bharatiya Temple in Chalfont, Bucks County.
“Diwali is a happy time,” says Jain. “My family gets together, we cook all day and then go to temple. In India, when my dad came home around 7pm, he would lead us in a pooja, or prayer, to honor Lakshmi and Vishnu. Then we would go to see the fireworks.” Called the Festival of Lights, Diwali combines the gift-giving of Christmas with the fireworks display and good fortune wishes of New Year’s, says Sudha Ganesh, a language teacher and program director at Bharatiya Temple. The holiday is a time to splurge, indulge in sweets, buy new clothes, and visit friends and family.
Despite the chilly early-November temperature, temple members come in their finest silks to celebrate Diwali. The women dress in richly colored saris, shalwars or anakali dresses; the men in kurtas. It’s a holiday gaily wrapped in tradition and customs where even clothing colors have meaning. Jewel-colored reds, maroons and greens are auspicious colors—wishes for riches, both earthly and spiritual, says Ganesh. Sun-gold yellows and turmeric oranges also bode well for the wearer.
“The Diwali or Deepavali festival marks the victory of good over evil,” explains Bharatiya Temple trustee Harnath Doddapaneni. Taken from the Sanskrit word deepavali, it means “an array of lights.” During the holiday, strings of colored tea lights and decorative oil or candlewick clay lamps, called diya, illuminate the temple and Indian homes.
Before the fireworks and vegetarian feast, called prasad, an all-day program of religious services are held in the temple. Hindu priests conduct them in Sanskrit, Hindi and Telugu. Songs and bells punctuate the prayers.
The temple is a large, magnificent room of multiple altars dedicated to deities of both south and north India, with the largest and center altar devoted to Vishnu. Members and visitors bring food, flowers or money as an offering to a deity. With the final ringing of bells, the day’s 450 worshippers spill out of the temple to watch the fireworks display or head to the food tent.
Later in the evening, the crowd swells to over 600 to watch the colorful geysers of red, green and white shoot into the air. Children rush to a nearby area to light their own colorful sparklers. And for many, the most important part of the event—the food—is still to come. Among the menu items are a savory lentil dal soup, seasoned with cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and green curry leaves; basmati rice; subji, a stew of lentils, eggplant, peas and potatoes; raita; and puri. For sweets there are boondi, rava and a wheat-flour laddu; pumpkin, mango and wheat halwas; and peda.
It’s a spectacular and festive feast—and one that is happily shared. “We welcome non-Hindu neighbors as well to our temple to celebrate Diwali with us. It is a way to share our culture,” says Doddapaneni.
Neelam Jain will teach Indian vegetarian cooking classes Oct. 8, 15 and 22, from 6 to 9pm, at the Community School of New Hope-Solebury; ssreg.com/csnhs; 215.297.0500. Jain is also the owner of the Shop of India in New Hope; 215.862.3544.
Bharatiya Temple is located at 1612 County Line Rd. in Chalfont; b-temple.org; 215.997.1181. This year’s Diwali Festival will be held on Thursday, Oct. 23.
AREA INDIAN TEMPLES & ORGANIZATIONS CELEBRATING DIWALI
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Hindu Temple
2021 Township Line Rd., Hatfield
1612 County Line Rd., Chalfont
ISKCON of Philadelphia/The Mount Airy Radha Krishna Temple
41 W. Allens Ln., Philadelphia
Samarpan Hindu Temple
6515 Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia
Tamil Association of Greater Delaware Valley
Note: Please check websites for Diwali services and/or celebrations
SOME OF THE INDIAN SWEETS SERVED DURING DIWALI
Halwa, also halva, is a sweet and dense confection. There are two types: flour-based, typically semolina; and nut- or seed-butter-based, often sesame. Both come in a variety of flavors, including carrot, pumpkin and mango.
Jalebi is a wheat-flour batter deep-fried in a pretzel or circular shape and then soaked in a sugar syrup. Rosewater or citrus made be added for flavoring.
Kheer is a creamy rice pudding made with basmati rice and milk and flavored with saffron, cardamom and pistachio nuts.
Laddu, or laddoo, is a ball-shaped sweet made with flour and sugar and fried in oil. Varieties with other ingredients, such as saffron, coconut and sweetened semolina, vary by recipe and region. Boondi laddu differs from regular laddu because it is fried in ghee (clarified butter).
Peda is usually a thick, doughy sweet made from khoa (condensed milk), sugar, and flavorings such as cardamom seeds, saffron and pistachionuts.
Rasgulla is a cheese-based, syrupy, dumpling-shaped dessert made with chhena (Indian cottage cheese) and semolina flour cooked in a sugar syrup.
Rava is a laddu made with semolina, cashews and ghee