Growing up, my brother loved lighting the fireworks on Diwali. He was a pyromaniac, as most little boys are, and we laugh watching him on our childhood tapes. He is dressed in a new kurta pajama, brimming with excitement as he runs to light an anar, a flowerpot firecracker. My father cheers him on from behind the camera, and I plug my ears, hesitantly holding onto a sparkler my mother has lit for me. We squeal in unison at the crackling light show in front of us. My brother is delighted and already running to light the next one.
I never liked fireworks, except for one. This one’s in the kitchen, with its gentle hissing that builds over the day, finally erupting into a plume of steam and a sharp whistle. The pressure cooker is as good a show. The whistle means the chickpeas are done, and once again our plates will be filled with my mother’s Punjabi chole bhature. For me, the whistle marks the beginning of Diwali.
Most Indian families have their special recipe for chole, a chickpea curry that’s simmered to perfection. It is a staple of Punjab, a state in northern India, and often served at dhabas, roadside eateries for weary travelers. The chickpeas are soaked overnight and softened in a pressure cooker. They are then simmered in a curry made with cumin, ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and spices. Served in a bowl, the chole is topped with tamarind and green mint chutneys, as well as a medley of fresh diced onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. The creamy chickpeas in the spicy curry are plain comfort. The chutneys make the dish zesty and bright — the tamarind adding a slight sweet-and-sourness, the mint and cilantro chutney bringing in herby elements with a hint of heat from added green chiles. The dish is good enough to pull over for, and more special when made at home: Chole is particularly popular at house parties and holiday festivities.
Normally, you’d sink into chole with rice, roti, or naan, but around the holidays, you’re likely eating chole with bhatura, a fermented fried flatbread. The bread is still a popular roadside staple with chole, fried laboriously, one serving at a time. Each pillowy bhatura is golden and crispy with a tangy aftertaste, begging to be dunked in chole.
Making bhature (the plural of bhatura) is a time-consuming process: The dough is kneaded with all-purpose flour, semolina, yogurt, sugar, salt, and caraway seeds and left to rise overnight before being fried piece by piece. Given the laborious process, my mother only makes them once a year, during our Diwali celebrations. In New Delhi, where we are from, Diwali festivities last for days. The holiday celebrates the triumph of good over evil: In Hindu mythology, lord Rama rescues his wife Sita from the capture of Ravana and returns with Sita to his kingdom. Diwali follows the lunar calendar and falls on a new moon — the darkest night. Diyas and lanterns are lit, and the evening sky is ignited with fireworks to help guide Rama and Sita home.
In the U.S., our festivities are more limited, but Diwali feels like a homecoming for me, too. My husband and I travel to the family home in Florida, where my parents, brother, and pet parrot, Yoshi, are already snug in the living room. You can smell chickpeas and ginger in the air and hear the faint hissing of the pressure cooker that’s only just beginning its long cooking journey. “Chai?” my mother will chirp, and we instinctively know it is time to relax. We huddle around the kitchen: I tear fresh herbs, my father peels pomegranate, and my mother readies her pans for the sweets she will make. My brother and husband rummage the garage for old sparklers and maybe a rocket or two.
And then, there it is. Sitting warm by the stove, the cloth-covered bowl with dough that has doubled in size overnight. I can see the heavy-bottomed wok already filled with oil that my mother will fry them in. The pressure cooker whistles like a crescendo, and at that moment, I know we are home.
Chole bhature is served for late lunch or dinner. Everyone gets a bowl of chole with all the dressings, and the bhature arrive one at a time, straight from the wok. You tear a piece of piping hot bhatura, blowing at your fingers, and dunk it in the spicy chole. The bite is savory, zesty, and sweet, all at once. The soft chickpeas dance with the chutneys that light fireworks on the palate. Yogurt raita is served on the side to cool off the spices. There is a silence and you can tell my mother is waiting with bated breath. “Wah...” my brother will whisper. “Bahut swad,” my husband will say in the few Hindi words he has learned, in order to convey that it is “very delicious.” I will melt in my chair, shaking my head in astonishment at how this same dish can taste so good time and time again. It’s not just the warm heat of the curry or the steam that emerges from the torn bhatura — it’s the feeling of being sated by a rare treat. It’s a once-a-year invitation to gather.
At the table, I wonder what Rama and Sita ate when they returned to their kingdom. They did, after all, defeat darkness over the course of 14 years and bring light and goodness to the land. In evening prayers on Diwali, we offer platters of sweets like laddoos and barfi to statues of these deities, decorating their pedestals with flowers and fruits. But when the table is set with chole bhature, we return to a saying in Hindi that translates to “The stomach is full but the heart is not.” It is as though with every lick of the finger, we’re already counting down the days to next year, to when the pressure cooker will whistle, beckoning us to a table filled with hot bread.