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For Indian Chefs in the Diaspora, Diwali Is a Deliciously Nostalgic Holiday

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A lentil cake coated in sesame seeds and topped with a strawberry, on a white plate.
For Besharam's Nov. 4 Diwali dinner, the dessert course will be meetho handvo, a kind of sweet lentil cake. (Besharam)

When she was a young girl growing up in Gujarat, India, Diwali was one of Heena Patel’s favorite times of year. She relished the ritual of getting the house sparkling clean a month ahead of the holiday, and loved the music, the folk dancing and the diyas (oil lamps) lit up spectacularly to celebrate this so-called “Festival of Lights.” It was like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all wrapped into one, Patel recalls. 

And of course there was food. Now the chef and owner of Besharam, a Gujarati-inspired restaurant in San Francisco’s Dogpatch district, Patel remembers that her mother would arrange an extravagant meal for each night of the five-day festival. “For me, I have one day,” she says, laughing. “I want to serve so many things.”

Still, the chef will pack as much holiday nostalgia as she can into that one day—an elaborate $95, all-vegetarian four-course Diwali prix fixe that she’ll host at Besharam on Thursday, Nov. 4. With its intricately spiced stews and sweet and savory lentil cakes, it’s a meal that’s steeped in Patel’s own memories of the holiday.  

Overhead view of a spread of Indian dishes on a wood table.
A spread of dishes from Besharam’s all-vegetarian menu. The maska paneer, or homemade cheese in spiced spinach sauce (top center), will be included on the Diwali menu. (Eric Wolfinger)

What Patel remembers most was the abundance of snacks and sweets that her mother filled the house with each year. She’d prepare ghughara, a kind of fried, semolina-filled pastry sweetened with sugar and dried fruits. In order to make mathiyas—an especially delicious, papadam-like cracker eaten during Diwali—she would use a silk thread from her sari, stretched tight in between her teeth, to cut the raw dough, which is notoriously sticky and difficult to work with. 

“Those memories are stuck in my vision,” Patel says.

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Besharam won’t serve all of these treats during its Diwali dinner. After all, Patel says, there are certain things she just can’t make as well as her mother. But if anything, Diwali has become even more meaningful to her in the 30-plus years since she moved to the United States at the age of 22. Now, Patel says, she has to work harder to keep those holiday memories alive—and to pass the traditions on to her own children. “I feel like the diaspora community celebrates with even more vigorousness,” she says. “Maybe I celebrate more than my mom and dad back home, to stay connected with what we said goodbye to many years ago.” 

Highlights from Besharam’s four-course Diwali prix fixe include Patel’s khaman—a spongy, savory Gujarati lentil cake that’s traditionally eaten during the holiday—and, for dessert, a kind of sweet apple lentil cake called meetho handvo. But Patel says the showstopper will be her undhiyu, a stew of root vegetables that have been stuffed with spices, then layered together with pigeon peas and crisp-edged fried dumplings that soak up all of that rich sauce. “That dish, it takes a long time to make, but it shouts something special I’m doing for my guests.”

A chef in black works in her dimly lit kitchen.
Heena Patel at work in the kitchen at her Dogpatch restaurant, Besharam. (Eric Wolfinger)

The meal is part of Besharam’s shift toward becoming an all-vegetarian restaurant since its mid-pandemic reopening. “I wanted to cook without fear,” Patel says of the decision. More than anything, she says, the pandemic scared her—made her scared for her health, scared she wouldn’t be able to pay the bills. 

“Coming out of this, I wanted to do everything without worrying about failing,” Patel says. “So I decided I wanted to do vegetarian food. I wanted to touch back to my roots and not worry about whether the business is enough to keep me afloat.”

Patel says the true heart of Diwali doesn’t lie in the festival’s outward trappings, but in its charitable spirit. It is, after all, a holiday that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, which makes it a good time to “reflect on our obligations to help other human beings who are less fortunate.”

“I grew up in a household where the wealth was never there,” Patel says. “But to share has always been taught by my parents.”

Besharam’s Diwali dinner will take place at 1275 Minnesota St. in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 4, with seatings from 5–8:45pm. Currently, all indoor tables have already been booked, but there are still some outdoor reservations available online.

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