Holi is rapidly becoming popular in London. The Indian ‘festival of colours’ — which gets even total strangers smearing each other with paint — is an exuberant riot of feelgood fun and playful pranks that mimics what various mythological gods once got up to (had they existed). Holi takes place around the end of February or beginning of March, based on the Hindu calendar and the position of the moon. This year, the two-day festival is either on 5 and 6 March or 6 and 7 March, depending on which calendar you follow; but traditionally Indians played with colours five days later on ‘Rang Panchmi’, this year on 11 March.
Mostly popular in north India, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, Holi is a festival of spring harvest and fertility. There are many Hindu myths attached to its origins — but mostly, it celebrates the sudden bursting forth of new life, high energy and the welcome vivid colours of the new season after the grim greyness of winter, hence the symbolic use of colour. Traditionally bonfires are lit the evening before to purify the air of evil spirits, and give harvest offerings to the god of fire. In India, these include crops planted in winter and harvested in spring — mostly wheat, but also fresh peas, barley, mustard, sesame seeds, linseeds, and several legumes of the chickpea family.
The most distinctive feature of the festival is the throwing of powdered colours, and the squirting of paint-filled water pistols at friends, family, neighbours and passers-by you might never have met before. The festival is a great leveller of caste, class, religion and wealth as nobody is spared the paint. Due to health and safety concerns, however, colours made from natural dyes — crushed flowers, edible flours, spices and henna, for instance — are now increasingly replacing artificial ones in India.
Unfortunately in the UK, Holi is becoming more and more commercialised, and Holi parties and events with no connection whatsoever to the original tradition are now taking place throughout the year. Luckily for foodies though, a few restaurants do host fabulous Holi events and offer enticing special menus during the festive period.
The Cinnamon Club has a £50 Holi menu until 7 March. Its younger sibling Cinnamon Kitchen has one for £30 until 28 March; plus a purpose-built pod outside the restaurant, where you can pelt each other with colour in a protective white suit. Additionally, Dishoom is serving Holi treats until 8 March (keep an eye on their Twitter and Facebook pages for details); and will host a Holi party on 29 March at Lewis Cubitt Square in King’s Cross (which hasn’t opened yet). Both annual events are hugely popular, so book your tickets early.
So, then, what is traditionally eaten at Holi? As usual in India, the answer varies wildly according to region, community and family traditions. We’ve highlighted only the most popular of the very many traditional foods eaten across the subcontinent, and told you where to find them in London — and they all happen to be vegetarian. You’ll notice that they’re mostly grab-and-go snacks, nibbles and sweets. There’s a practical reason for this: looking like a walking rainbow, most people would simply not be able to chop up vegetables, grind masalas and simmer curries for hours. The food has to be portable and pre-prepared — and such rich, carb-laden fare also helps keep up the energy levels. So now there’s no excuse not to let your hair down, push yourself out of your comfort zone and go a bit crazy…
The most famous item associated with Holi is bhaang: a drink made, usually by men, by crushing the leaves and flower buds of the cannabis plant in a large pestle and mortar. Bhaang has been a festive staple for centuries, used for achieving spiritual ecstasy and transcendental states. A little milk, ghee and many different spices are added to make the base, which can then be used for making bhaang thandai (see below), bhaang pakoras and bhaang sweets — not unlike marijuana brownies.
Dishoom serves (cannabis-free, obviously) bhaang lassi, a yoghurt drink flavoured instead with shredded mint leaves, ginger, grenadine, candied fennel sprinkles and coconut milk. It’s available with or without rum, in small and large sizes.
Thandai can be made with or without bhaang. Literally meaning ‘cooler’, it’s a thick, creamy drink made from whole milk into which crushed almonds, pistachios and sometimes cashew nuts are added. It’s distinctively spiced with saffron, cardamom, fennel seeds, cracked black pepper, white poppy seeds and rose petals; and is often accompanied by fried, crunchy snacks. In India, it’s increasingly sold in low-sugar versions; plus new-fangled flavours such as tamarind, lemon, mango, strawberry, pandan and rose. Chefs sometimes turn it into ice creams, mousses and desserts.
Rustic Gujarati restaurant Meera’s Village in Queensbury — which is painted with colourful murals of village scenes with staff in traditional costumes — serves khus (white poppy seed) thandai in small and large sizes. At the Cinnamon Kitchen near Liverpool Street, the Holi menu has thandai sorbet as a palate cleanser between starters and mains; and its older sibling Cinnamon Club in Westminster serves a contemporary Holi dessert of gulab jamun, passion fruit tart, ‘sweet chickpea caviar’ and thandai ice cream. So that’s plenty of thandai to cool down with — regardless of whether or not you’ve been drinking bhaang.
A speciality of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, now found all over India in different guises, kachoris are ball-shaped pastry shells with a variety of savoury (and occasionally sweet) fillings. The two most popular are split yellow moong beans and fresh peas; but ones stuffed with onions, potatoes or split chickpeas are also regional specialities. They’re eaten as a snack with coriander-mint and date-tamarind chutneys, and are very widely available in London.
The cheap and cheerful Ram’s in Kenton sells Surti kachori, spiced with fresh coriander and coconut like in Surat, the gourmet capital of Gujarat in western India; and Southall’s fast-food caff Chandni Chowk sells a Punjabi version. Dalston’s Gujarati Rasoi sometimes has peas kachori on its regularly changing menu; as does another Southall restaurant, Madhu’s. Wembley’s hugely popular Gujarati café Sakonis serves both pea and split yellow moong bean versions; and across the road, the homely Asher’s Africana not only serves it on its regular menu, but also sells frozen ones in packs of ten to take home. You can buy kachoris per kilo at Romford Road’s City Sweet Centre and most Indian sweet shops. Meera’s Village serves rarely-seen lilva kachori, stuffed with a variety of Indian broad beans.
A popular version of kachori — especially for breakfast — is khasta kachori: flaky, round deep-fried bread stuffed with split moong beans and spices such as fennel seeds, often served with whipped yoghurt, and coriander-mint and date-tamarind chutneys. Try it at the Cinnamon Kitchen, or at Harrow and Hounslow’s Maharashtrian-owned, no-frills Shree Krishna Vada Pav cafés.
Dahi vada/ dahi bhalla
Dahi vada, also commonly known as dahi bhalla in north India, are split white urid lentil fritters that have been soaked in water, squeezed dry, steeped in whipped yoghurt, and topped with date-tamarind chutney with a sprinkling of red chilli powder, roasted coarsely crushed cumin seeds and ‘chaat masala’, a spice mix notable for its dominant pungent flavour of black salt. It’s a savoury, sweet and tangy dish, and variations are found all over India. Although normally eaten as a snack or main meal, it’s found in many London restaurants as a starter or a side dish, lurking among fried snacks or raita.
Try dahi vada at Sakonis, Asher’s Africana, or Madhu’s. Southall’s Punjabi restaurant Brilliant (which totally lives up to its name), Gujarati café Vijay’s Chawalla in east London’s Green Street, the south Indian vegetarian chain Sagar, and the old curiosity that’s The India Club at the Strand Continental all have it on their menus. In Euston, Drummond’s Street’s Chutneys and Diwana Bhelpoori House both serve this cooling summer snack.
Aloo chaat and aloo papri chaat
Like dahi vada, aloo and aloo papri are varieties of immensely popular chaats: street food snacks sold by roadside or beachside vendors. Aloo chaat is made from diced boiled potatoes, chickpeas, whisked yoghurt, and coriander-mint and date-tamarind chutneys, topped with sev (chickpea flour vermicelli) and chaat masala. In aloo papri chaat, the same mixture is served on crisp pastry discs.
Pretty much every Indian restaurant in London serves either aloo or aloo papri chaat (or both), including Sakonis, Ram’s, Gujarati Rasoi, Chandni Chowk, Madhu’s, Vijay’s Chawalla, Chutneys, and newcomer Inito in Spitalfields. At Brilliant, it’s made from low-fat yoghurt and flagged up as a healthy option.
Also known as bhajiya, pakoras are chickpea flour fritters made from onions, potatoes, spinach, fenugreek, cauliflower, aubergines, yams, chillies and other vegetables, and also paneer. They’re almost as ubiquitous in London as samosas, and should be eaten piping hot.
Look for paneer pakora at Chandni Chowk, chilli ones at The India Club, and potato-garlic and spinach-sweetcorn flavours at Madhu’s. It’s worth visiting Asher’s Africana just to taste their soft, fluffy, light-as-air dahl (split white urid lentil) and methi (fresh fenugreek leaf) bhajiyas. Sometimes pakoras’ stuffing is a little more elaborate, featuring potatoes mashed and flavoured with spices, cashew nuts and raisins — and you’ll find this version (along with an extra-garlicky one) at Meera’s Village.
The most famous Indian pakoras in London, however, are ‘crispy bhajiya’ at the small, unassuming, formica table-topped Maru’s Bhajia House in Wembley. The owners created these moreish morsels — spicy, garlicky potato slices in rice flour-enriched batter — many decades ago in Kenya, and the recipe remains a closely-guarded secret. They’re one of the most loved and imitated Indian restaurant dishes – truly, the stuff of legend.
These sweet, crescent-shaped pasties are a speciality of north and central India and Rajasthan, but many other parts of the subcontinent have their own version and a completely different name. They’re filled with semolina or khoya (dried thickened milk), grated coconut, nuts such as almonds, and cardamom. They’re eaten as a snack with a cup of tea.
A speciality of Gujarat and Maharashtra, these are sweet flatbreads stuffed with mashed split pigeon peas, jaggery, cardamom, saffron and nutmeg, and generously smeared with ghee. They’re eaten as part of a main meal, often taking place of regular flatbreads on special occasions.
Being a specific regional speciality, puran poli are not easy to find in London, but they are a speciality at Ram’s; and at Asher’s Africana, they’re available on their own, with vegetable curry, or can be requested as part of a thali.
Another speciality of Gujarat and Maharashtra, this labneh-like sweetened yoghurt cheese is becoming increasingly popular in London. Thick Greek-style yoghurt is strained through muslin for several hours, and in the remaining curds sugar, cardamom and saffron are incorporated, along with nuts like almonds, pistachios and pine nut-like chironji nuts. Sometimes fresh fruit such as bananas, apples, oranges and grapes are added to make fruit shrikhand; and versions with fresh mangoes or, less conventionally, strawberries are also popular. Shrikhand is eaten with pooris (deep-fried round puffed breads) on many special occasions.
We recently enjoyed it at Dishoom (though we were less keen on its unusual pairing with spiced chocolate mousse); and Hammersmith’s Potli restaurant serves it the traditional way, with saffron, cardamom and pistachios. Gymkhana has shrikhand ice cream with barfi and chocolate samosa on its dessert menu.
Shree Krishna Vada Pav sells 400g packs of saffron or mango shrikhand; and Asher’s Africana sells them frozen in the same size. Diwana Bhelpoori House serves regular shrikhand every day, and fruit shrikhand at weekends. Sakonis, Ram’s and Madhu’s all have it on their dessert menus.
Namkeen and mithai
Namkeen are fried, crunchy, spicy, savoury nibbles made from wheat or chickpea flour. They’re often eaten with a cup of tea, but are perfect with a chilled beer, too. Especially popular at Holi are cumin-flecked flaky biscuits called mathri; wheat flour and semolina pastry ribbons and diamonds called namak para; and gathiya, fried chickpea flour snacks in assorted shapes, flavours and sizes.
Mithai, on the other hand, are sticky, syrupy Indian sweetmeats. They’re usually made from semolina, chickpea flour, wheat flour, plain flour, milk powder, khoya, paneer, carrots or squashes as a base. To this any combination of fresh or dried grated coconut, almonds, pistachios, cashew nuts, chironji nuts, raisins or white poppy seeds are added, along with spices such as saffron, cardamom and nutmeg. Fresh or dried fruit, particularly dates and figs, are also popular additions; and the sweets, which come in different shapes, are often topped with silver or gold leaf. They’re eaten as a snack or with main meals. For Holi, try different flavours of halwa, barfi, peda and laddoos — four of the most popular categories of festive Indian sweets. On Cinnamon Kitchen’s Holi menu is a dessert of assorted Holi sweets, including carrot samosa, pistachio barfi and fig-semolina halwa.
Namkeen and mithai are usually sold side by side in Indian sweet shops such as the excellent Ambala chain (we can’t recommend the Drummond Street branch highly enough), Wembley’s Suraj Sweet Mart, Pooja Sweet & Savouries, City Sweet Centre, Nawal (which has branches in Forest Gate, Ilford and Leyton), and many, many more. We would normally advise you to steer clear of garish rainbow-hued mithai with artificial food colouring… but as it’s Holi, the more colourful the better.