Chennai-based chef Shri Bala recounts waking up at 4 am for an oil bath on Deepavali during her childhood. Her grandmother, she says, had a big brass container that would hold 50 litres of water. The vessel would be washed with turmeric, filled with water, which would then be boiled and allowed to cool overnight.
“Legend has it that the goddess Ganga would descend from heaven and enter the brass container. This is why the oil bath on the morning of Deepavali is called Ganga Snanam or Ganga bath,” she explains. Shri Bala and her cousins would wake up early, smear oil on their hair and body and bathe using the water from the container. After this was done, the rest of the day would be spent on more important matters such as eating lots of food and bursting firecrackers, she recounts.
Food is perhaps the most integral part of celebrating any festival, including Deepavali. And in Tamil Nadu, while most customs remain the same across the state, popular sweet treats and specialty dishes change across districts.
During the festival, most of the food is prepared at home and meals are eaten with family and friends. “Unlike other days, there is an abundance of food to look forward to, and hence, your stomach needs some preparation for the onslaught,” says Rakesh Raghunathan, a Chennai-based food historian, who also hosts his own show.
Perhaps, long ago, the elders in the families realised the need to prepare the family for the feast on festive days and decided to include what has now come to be known as the Lehyam or Deepavali Marundhu (medicine).
This Lehyam includes nearly 20 ingredients including cumin, jaggery, coriander and other spices. These are then mixed with 250 grams of ginger extract and then boiled in water after adding ghee. The mix is then slow-cooked until the ghee separates. This mixture is had even before breakfast, early in the morning, Rakesh explains.
Once the Lehyam is served, it is breakfast time.
For most meat-eating communities in Tamil Nadu, Idly and mutton curry or Kari Kuzhambu is the Deepavali breakfast staple. It is eaten across Tamil Nadu in different districts. In some places, such as Chennai, this Deepavali tradition has evolved into Dosa and mutton Paya for Deepavali morning or the previous night for Naraka Chaturdashi.
“Idly/Dosa, Vada, Sambar, Pongal and Kesari are usually made for breakfast in vegetarian households,” Shri Bala says. However, on the day of the new moon or Amavasya, most families, including meat-eating ones, will stick to vegetarian fare. If Deepavali falls on a new moon day, meat-based dishes are eaten the previous night. Some households do not cook food with onions and garlic on the day of Deepavali. “The Arachuvitta Sambar is usually made for lunch. However, in case it is the new moon, then this is not made as it has onions. It is swapped with a Mor Kuzhambu (curd-based gravy) which does not have onion or garlic,” Shri Bala adds.
In the Thanjavur- Kumbakonam and Srivilliputhur belt, a special sweet dish called Okkarai or Ukkarai is made for Deepavali. This is a crumbly sweet dish made with dal, jaggery, and ghee, etc. “It is a sweet and crumbly stuffing made with horse gram, jaggery, ghee, elaichi, etc and slow-cooked in a pan,” says Rakesh.
Author/columnist Nandita Iyer offers a step-by-step guide on how to make Okkarai in a Twitter thread
Then there is the deep-fried rice crepes or Vellai Appam which is offered as a prasadam on special occasions including Karthigai Deepam or Deepavali. “A batter is made and deep-fried in oil until it puffs up like poori. There is no mould used to fry these appams unlike a Kuzhi Paniyaram,” Shri Bala adds.
In the Nanjilnadu aka the Kanyakumari - Nagercoil belt, a famous sweet dish called Munthiri Kothu is cooked for Deepavali. Munthiri Kothu is made from dal roasted with ghee and then crushed into a powder. It is then mixed with sesame seeds and coconut flakes, both of which have been roasted finely. This is rolled into a dough with jaggery syrup and then converted to small dough balls that are then deep-fried.
Munthiri Kothu, Image credit: Twitter/@TamilSpaces
This sweet treat made in the southern coastal regions of Tamil Nadu also spread to Sri Lanka where, with minor variations in preparation, the sweet is called Payyaram Paniyaram.
Apart from these, there is Murukku, Thattai, Seedai, etc for savory items Mysuru Paak, Cashew Halwa, Rava and Besan Laddu, Adhirasam, Somas, etc as sweets treats made in most houses but with minor variations.
Murukku, image credit: Cookploration
Thattai, image credit: Cookploration
“There is also the seven cup barfi recipe. And in each house, the recipe can differ or be improvised as it is pretty foolproof. While sugar, besan, and flour are staples, the rest of the ingredients can be picked by the chef. The only requirement is that there need to be seven ingredients added in equal quantity to make this barfi,” says Shri Bala.
Munthiri Kothu, image credit: Cookploration
Rakesh also adds that his aunt, who has her roots in Singapore, also adds Pineapple tarts to her repertoire of Deepavali sweets. “Pineapple tart is a traditional dish made for the Chinese New Year in Singapore. It is possibly the most famous of new year's sweet treats also. However, with my aunt moving here, she began making it for special occasions and not just for Chinese New Year. So now, every Deepavali, she makes pineapple tarts and sends a big container over to my house,” Rakesh adds.