If You Missed Diwali in India, Try Dallas
Two weeks after the close of the State Fair of Texas, with the smells of deep-fried Oreos and funnel cake still lingering in the air, 60,000 Indian-Americans from across the country are expected to descend on the same site this Saturday to observe Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and one of India’s most important holidays.
Like the state fair, the annual event — known officially as the DFW Diwali Mela (for Dallas-Fort Worth) — is built around food and mounted on a scale worthy of Texas. Held in and around the Cotton Bowl, it is among the largest and grandest Diwali celebrations in the United States.
Dallas is not the most obvious setting. Though the city and its surrounding area have one of the nation’s largest Indian populations (108,000 in the 2010 census), the Chicago region’s is nearly twice that size, and the New York-New Jersey area’s is more than five times as large. The Dallas festival is being held this Saturday, long after Diwali (Oct. 19 this year), because the state fair was using the fairgrounds then.
But for those who attend the Dallas mela, Saturday may as well be the official holiday. What brings them here is the sheer scope and Technicolor splash of the spectacle: Bollywood singers are flown in from India. A cast of 150 volunteers stages a production of the “Ramlila” (a re-enactment of the “Ramayana,” the Hindu epic). Three giant burning effigies of the 10-headed Hindu villain Ravana and his family crackle into the night, and hundreds of cooks fry up syrupy, spice-laced Indian sweets.
This year’s festival will have a slightly different tone than in years past, coming so soon after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated much of Houston and other parts of southeastern Texas. Organizers are expecting a sizable contingent from Houston’s large Indian community to travel more than 200 miles to Dallas, in part because Houston’s Diwali celebration on Oct. 7 was smaller this year in the wake of the floods.
“We have so many friends there,” said Satish Gupta, who founded the Dallas mela. (Its supporting organization, the DFW Indian Cultural Society, is aiding hurricane relief efforts.) “It’s not even a question. Whatever help we can provide.”
This means, too, that the coming event could be the largest in the history of the city’s festival.
One of its central components — and the backdrop to every other activity at the mela — is the dizzying array of foods, with special care taken to make sure that every region’s Diwali-specific treats are represented. This multicultural spirit is what sets the Dallas mela apart from those in other cities.
“In a single festival, you can eat Gujarati snacks while listening to performances in Tamil, and watching South Indian dance,” said Kalpana Fruitwala, an organizer.
For the event, Subash Chander, the owner of the popular Bombay Sweets & Snacks in suburban Irving, creates a pack of Bengali mithai, milk- and nut-based sweets. It includes neon-pink chum chum (coconut-coated milk solids), and gulab jamun (syrup-soaked balls of deep-fried batter) filled with a silky mixture of cream and ground almonds.
On a recent afternoon, Chander was deeply concentrating on an enormous mixing bowl heated to exactly 450 degrees, making sure the milk and shredded coconut for the chum chum were being churned to the ideal softness. If the temperature rises even a few degrees, or the mixture is stirred for too long, he said, the treat loses its luxurious, slightly bouncy texture.
“You have to be very patient,” Chander said. “Only after 18 years have I figured out the secret to making chum chum this soft.”
The response at the festival makes all the care worthwhile. “All night, we have this big line that wraps around many times,” he said. “It got so long that the organizers had to install stands for people to wait.”
Lalith Thota, who is busy preparing to open the restaurant India 101, also in Irving, will make jangiri, a thick, patterned fritter soaked in sugar syrup (with a shape not unlike that State Fair of Texas staple, funnel cake) that is eaten widely in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Nearby, at the restaurant Bawarchi Biryanis, Anil Sukkagopal said his Diwali booth will serve Mysore pak, a rich, crumbly pastry made of ghee and chickpea flour that has its origins in Karnataka state.
“We want to create an environment like the street markets in Bombay,” Sukkagopal said. “We’ll be yelling and shouting about our food. People will be crowding around. It’s a sensory experience.”
At his booth, Naga Kolli, the owner of the South Indian restaurant Saravanaa Bhavan, in nearby Plano, will supplement a menu of dosas and idlis with payasam, a comforting, saffron-stained milk pudding popular in Tamil Nadu state, where the dish is often consumed first thing in the morning on Diwali, right after prayers.
Testing the recipe in the restaurant’s kitchen, a cook tossed in just-fried cashews and raisins into a bubbling stainless steel vat filled with milk and vermicelli noodles, to add richness and crunch.
“We make it because it is made especially for Diwali in certain places,” Naga said, adding with a laugh, “The only disadvantage of payasam is that because it’s more of a liquid, people have a hard time walking around the festival with it.”
The Dallas celebration has come a long way since 1994, when it began as a house party with about 50 guests, bootleg fireworks and catered food at Gupta’s home in North Dallas.
When the party started to outgrow his backyard, Gupta came up with the idea to turn it into a public, community-run mela, a type of traditional festival with food and music that occurs in every village throughout India during Diwali. “We wanted to bring that flavor of home to Dallas, to give our children a closer connection to Indian culture,” he said.
For the inaugural mela in 2006, Gupta ambitiously decided to book Texas Stadium in Irving. “Everyone was making fun of us,” said R.K. Panditi, a festival organizer who oversees the food vendors. “We knew we wouldn’t fill it, but I thought maybe we’ll get 15,000.”
More than 38,000 people showed up, creating a major traffic jam on the freeway, and an hourlong wait just to enter the stadium. The food ran out within the first hour, so Panditi had to ask two nearby Indian restaurants to stay open until 4 a.m. to feed the crowds.
Since 2011, the festival has taken place in the Cotton Bowl, which has a capacity of nearly 100,000, and the added allure of being a citywide landmark.
The festival has played an enormous role in expanding the impact of the Indian community, whose population in the Dallas area alone more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. There is now a petition going around the Coppell Independent School District to make Diwali an official school holiday, and last year a seasonal Diwali postage stamp had its Texas debut at the mela here.
On Saturday, vendors will arrive at the Cotton Bowl at 10 a.m. and not leave until well after midnight, when stalls once loaded with chum chum and biryani have been completely emptied of their goods.
Staying until the very end is well worth it, though, as the closing event of the mela is an impressive display of fireworks shaped like diyas (lamps, a symbol of Diwali), synchronized to a colorful laser show and Bollywood music — a favorite tradition of Gupta’s ever since that first house party.
“Without the fireworks,” he said, a sparkle in his eye, “there is no Diwali.”
© New York Times News Service