Like all major festivals, Diwali is a time to pack on a stone in a week, ricocheting from table to kitchen to party to sweet box in a joyful, greed-driven trance that has absolutely nothing to do with appetite and everything to do with symbolism, celebration and sharing- except where the last of the laddoos are concerned. Then it’s every man for himself.
In London, Christmas lights abound, ridiculously premature, but pleasingly apt, too, for the Festival of Light. It’s Earlham Street in Covent Garden that feels most exotic- a fiery array of red, orange and yellow starbursts echoing the hues of the symbolic fireworks which have kept me awake for weeks. I don’t mind- as long as Rama and Sita- and my cats- make it home safe.
To ease ourselves into proceedings, a visit to the refined, restrained Moti Mahal, where it’s a fair bet the Diwali dinner will satisfy without straining the waistband. And it does just that, ushering in the festivities with a duo of sparkling decoctions- rose and raspberry, and mango and passionfruit- and an ingenious make-your-own salad plate that’s probably the most veg we’ll see all week.
Were we not so considerate of each other’s gluttony, we’d be extraordinarily scrappy over sharing out our spoils. Nepalese chicken momos are slippery and pungently garlicky, their fragility juxtaposed with beautifully messy, abstract tangles of scrunchy deep-fried soft-shell crab. Pani puri are perfect Diwali fodder, fun to look at, fun to assemble, and a riot to watch people eat- especially if they don’t get golgappa in gob in a single bite.
Richer riches are conjured in the form of saffron rice, a robustly savoury Rajasthani lamb maans and a thick black daal that, strangely for something so specifically Indian, always recalls that quintessential British taste of Marmite. A crisp-skinned, spiced stone-bass fillet interprets that Diwali ‘light’ in another way- a nimble, delicate delicacy, leaving a good yearning for pudding.
Sweetmeats will be in glorious abundance over the next few days, and a silky, hauntingly smoky chestnut ice cream, a quenelle of toasty, buttery almond halva, and a fat little gulab jamun are the perfect catalysts for the necessary seasonal overgrowth of the sweet tooth. A clever celebratory cavalcade from Moti Mahal that’s left me wanting more mithai, post-haste.
Lucky, then, that the Dishoom team are so accommodating. Always ones to put on a good show, be it coloured lassis at Holi or mendhi at Eid, the friendly informality lends itself to both ‘family’ and ‘fun’. I’m with the former for the latter, and sipping chai and potent punch whilst listening to the captivating Vayu Naidu relate the 18-night epic Ramayana in just 18 minutes is, quite simply, a joy.
As are the sticky motichoor laddoos, indulgent habshi halwa and the Dishoom-wallah’s personal favourite- chocolate barfi- handed round on heaping salvers post-story. Sweet pan is chewed along with the fat as greetings and well-wishes are exchanged- another triumphant evening from that scruffy, new-old Bombay cafe everyone seems to view with as much affection as a marvellously dotty old auntie.
With scarcely time to kick-box off a kalajam, we’re ensconced by the gushing waterfall at La Portes des Indes, imbibing an obscenely aromatic, spiced Iced Tea and a super-juice whose moniker- ‘Nirvana’- quite nicely describes our collective state of mind. Ragda Pattice takes that chickpea-masala-and-potato-cake chaat favourite from the streets to the lofty climes of fine dining, losing nothing in translation.
Fish and chips seems a most unlikely Diwali dish- but Mehernosh Mody has as much wit with his menus as he does talent in the kitchen, giving gram-battered coley and a bijou heap of masala fries a dusting of chaat masala and a decent dollop of both green chutney and Indianisation. Tender lamb chops bring to mind an entirely different festival- cloaked in a thick, dark gravy with an almost Christmas-pudding-like flavour.
But, when the dum crust on a quail biryani is cracked, it’s back to Hyderabad with a hearty ‘Huzzah!’. Done right, that fragrance evokes India in a single waft- and this is done very, very right. There’s a subtle ghee sweetness, and tender hunks of juicy meat nestled amongst the elegantly lengthy grains of Basmati. Even the single quail’s egg is jealously- or, less competitively, ‘generously’, divided 50:50.
With Moti Mahal’s salad plate now a distant memory, a homely yellow daal and a vibrant, vital saag paneer is absolutely what the doctor ordered. Health concerns addressed, the prospect of pud manages to halt us just prior to Utterly Stuffed. Just. And thank Ram, because it’s fabulously sludgy, fudgy mishti doi and a rainbow of gaudy mithai, accompanied by the fanfare of table-side Coorgi coffee flaming.
It’s a fittingly flamboyant, sweet end to a full- and filling- week of family, friends and feasting. At any other time of year, consuming a plateful of habshi halwa, pera, Karachi halwa, kalakand, gajrella and chocolate barfi would be nothing short of a lethal cocktail. But this is Diwali. And so we must celebrate the Festival of Light in style- even if we end up rather the heavier for it. Then, next year, we get to do it all again. Sweet.
Moti Mahal, 45 Great Queen St, WC2B 5AA, www.motimahal-uk.com
Dishoom Shoreditch, 7 Boundary St, London E2 7JE, www.dishoom.com
Vayu Naidu provided the Diwali storytelling, www.vayunaiducompany.org.uk
La Porte des Indes, 32 Bryanston St, W1H 7EG, www.laportedesindes.com