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Lifestyle : Taste of India
1HERSA1 E019 AG2440526AA-051010 taste of india special report good living Sweet celebrations Festive favourites . . . Anu Chhabra is busy for Diwali; (left) boondi ladoo. Feasts are a crucial part of many cultural festivities, writes Carli Ratcliff. E ach of India's 28 states has its own religious, cultural and culinary heritage. Across the country, hundreds of festivals reflect this diversity, from national celebrations to days of religious observance and local harvest festivities. Diwali (Festival of Light), which this year starts on November 5, sees the country illuminated with pretty oil lamps and candles and sweets given to friends and family. For the owner of Maya Sweets in Surry Hills, Anu Chhabra, Diwali is the busiest time of year. ''We have to put on extra staff,'' she says. Chhabra makes her sweets on the premises and is hard-pressed to keep up with demand for gulab jamun (doughnut-like balls in sugar syrup) and ras malai (sweet, fresh cheese dumplings served in sweetened milk with pistachios). Baisakhi is a Sikh religious celebration and one of the biggest festivals of the year. Central to Baisakhi is the ''langar'', a celebratory meal prepared in a community kitchen. Communal kitchens were established across the north of the country centuries ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji (the founder of Sikhism) to provide vegetarian meals for the hungry, regardless of religion, caste or gender. Kitchens still exist across India today. The co-owner and chef of Himalaya Restaurant at Five Dock, Arif Ahmad, says, ''In India, the kitchens are the centre of celebration. The whole community comes, from kids to grandparents.'' Onam is southern India's biggest festival. Kerala-born chef Kutty Palassery cooked for 1000 guests at Royal India Restaurant in North Strathfield in September. He specialises in festival cuisine and says the Onam feast, known as Thiruona-Sadya, is one of the most important, prettiest meals of the year. ''We arrange more than a dozen individual dishes on traditional plantain leaves. It is a completely vegetarian feast,'' he explains. Rice importer C. V. Jose, of Taj spice warehouse in Granville, is busiest before festivals. ''Basmati is the king of rice and customers want aged basmati for celebratory dishes, biryani particularly,'' he says. Jose travels to India regularly to visit plantations and mills in search of the best rice and says he thinks Punjab grows the best basmati. Jose ages the rice in hessian bags -- the longer, the better. ''The older the rice, the less moisture it has, which means it won't break during cooking,'' he says. ''You don't want broken grains in a biryani, it is a dish you cook to show off.''
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