Celebrating Holi: Traditional Foods and Festive Recipes

Close-up view of several hands covered in vibrant Holi powder colors, reaching towards each other in a celebration of the Holi festival.

Holi, or the Festival of Colors, is a playful and festive Indian holiday that takes place on the late February or early March full moon. Like most ethnic holidays, food is an integral part of Holi, a time when (mostly northern) India revels in the first spring harvest during a days-long celebration of life.

Traditional Holi recipes are as expressive as the festivities, due to their sensational array of flavor-rich spices and sweet and savory delicacies.

However larger than life the foods and the festivities are, a nourishing, sense-enlivening array of Holi treats requires just a quick trip to your local Indian grocer, and a short amount of time well spent in the kitchen.

Holi is most widely celebrated by those who worship Krishna. Adherents work themselves into a joyous enthusiasm, welcoming the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. The people flood the streets and toss colored water and powders at each other in a spirit of renewal and play.

The festivities then take a more domestic turn, as participants retire, bathe, and don white clothing, gathering among families to savor and appreciate the wellspring of life that bonds them together. Of course, no celebration of life is complete without a generous assortment of special delicacies, sure to make the kitchen just as warm and inviting as the overall atmosphere of love, sharing, and hope.

During the communal and family gatherings, there’s no shortage of sweet, rich, and savory Holi dishes. The food largely centers around various milk and yogurt bases, fried dumplings, and a playful burst of exotic spices. If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, maybe Holi’s traditional creamy saffron beverage (with just a hint of rose) will.

Below are just some of the most popular Holi dishes northern Indians can’t help but dream about when the droll timbre of winter invokes a deep longing for the first song-bird of spring. Indian cuisine is as diverse as it is other-worldly – so your best bet is finding the highest-quality Indian market near you, enlisting the help of your loved ones, and trying something new!

Sweet fried dumplings filled with toasted nuts, seeds, and khoya, a type of refined milk fat. Making gujiya involves three phases:

  1. The dough: A blend of flour, some form of fat (often ghee), and water. Whatever standard dough recipe you prefer, knead until pliable and easy to shape, yet still a little stiff.
  2. Filling: Creating khoya is simple, but requires time and patience to evaporate almost all the liquid from whole fat milk, resulting in something resembling curds. Most gujiya recipes include sauteed and blended nuts, while some also use coconut and/or raisins. For added sweetness, you can also use jaggery, a mineral-rich molasses/cane sugar mix.
    Fold the filling of your choice into flat circles of dough and seal around the half circle’s edge. There are also ornate gujiya molds that impress a beautiful pattern onto the dough.
  3. Frying the gujiya: Fry the gujiyas in a deep pool of oil on medium heat until a light golden brown. Best served warm!

Optional: some prefer to dip or soak gujiyas in a sweet syrup.

This rich, aromatic drink is the perfect complement to gujiya. Thandai is a cooling drink (“thanda” means “cool” in Hindi), made from a sweet paste diluted with milk. While it has many ingredients, it’s easy to prepare:

  1. Rinse and soak about 20 almonds, 15 pistachios, and 10 cashews in water for about 4 hours (this activates more nutrients). Also soak 1½ tablespoons each of poppy seeds and melon seeds in a separate bowl. You can speed the time using warm water, which allows you to blanch (remove the skin) of almonds if desired.
  2. Drain and combine the nuts and seeds in a grinder to make a paste (or you can pick up a mortar and pestle when collecting the following ingredients from International Fresh Market!).
  3. Next, add the following:
    • 1½ tablespoons of fennel seeds
    • 1-inch cinnamon stick
    • 12 cardamom pods (fresh, if available)
    • Pinch of saffron
    • 20 rose petals
    • Pepper to taste
  4. Continue grinding, then mix ½ cup of milk to achieve a smooth paste.
  5. Now bring 4 cups of milk to a boil, turn off the heat, and add the paste.
  6. Allow it to cool and refrigerate at least 4 hours.
  7. Mix, strain, and add sliced nuts and saffron for garnish before serving.

Holi is traditionally served in clay cups, which bolster the earthy aromas.

A sweet and spicy lentil dumpling snack, served in chilled yogurt, dahi bhalla is a popular street food in Pakistan and India. For simplicity’s sake, you may wish to purchase a ready-made chutney. Popular choices include sweet and tangy tamarind, or a minty cilantro chutney, which you can find right here at our store.

When planning these or any complex recipe, you can always contact us to ask our friendly, knowledgeable staff if we carry a particular item. Here are the step-by-step instructions for making your very own dahi bhalla:

  1. Rinse and soak 1 cup of lentils (and/or mung beans) overnight.
  2. Drain and add ⅓ cup of water, plus ½ teaspoon each of salt and cumin seeds. Blend until reaching a smooth paste.
  3. Whisk the batter until fluffy, either using a whisker (preferable), or by hand for about 10 minutes. Pro tip: the batter is ready to fry when a droplet floats on water.
  4. Heat a small pool of oil or ghee, and fry dumpling-sized scoops of paste (an ice cream scoop is perfect) on medium heat for about 8–9 minutes.
  5. Let the fried dumplings (or bhalla) cool, then add to warm water for about 20 minutes. This causes the dumplings to swell. Finally, drain them with a light squeeze.
  6. Whisk 5–6 cups of thick, yet pourable plain whole milk yogurt. You can thin overly thick yogurt with small amounts of milk or water, and salt to taste.
  7. Cover the bhalla with 2–3 cups of whisked yogurt and cool in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
  8. Remove and add the remaining yogurt in a large dish. Top with cumin, red chili powder, salt, and your chutney of choice – serve, and enjoy!

Note some dahi bhalla recipes call for pomegranate arils, which are good for the heart.

These are just several of the most crowd-pleasing concoctions Indians know full well. There are also sweet flatbread/jaggery dishes, and Holi carries numerous implications for those adhering to Ayurvedic principles of health. Just as Holi is said to mark a dispelling of evil, Holi dishes can be an important turning point for those following Ayurvedic detoxification protocols.

Also, don’t feel restricted to these or any traditional Holi recipes. Many people have experimented with Indian-fusion foods, adding Latin spices to Thandai or lending an Asian flair to Gujiya (try dipping them in a sweet Aisian plum sauce, for example).

Since time immemorial, cooking has been a way of bonding with family and community. With Holi, food also becomes a way of revering life in a spirit of play and enthusiasm that, for all its winter-time solemnity, ancient cultures have long attributed to the source of life and the cycle of seasons.

During Holi, consider enlivening your humble abode with colorful fabrics and enjoying upbeat traditional Indian music that instills a sense of hope, growth, and celebration. As always, you’ll find all the ingredients needed for traditional Indian fare (and a whole lot more!) at International Fresh Market – the premier Indian market in Naperville, Illinois. 

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