he five-day festival of lights known as Tihar honors Yama, the God of Death, but the worship of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, dominates the festivities. All this, and the celebration of crows, dogs, and cows helps overshadow the other aspect of Tihar. To match the colorful and bouncy mood, Tihar welcomes many confectionaries to its assortment of cuisines. Tihar lets you satisfy your sweet tooth, in the most Nepali way possible. With mithai, the festival has a whole new dimension added to it.
Nepali sweets normally are served throughout the day: with breakfast, with afternoon tea as a snack, and after dinner. The confections are made from a wide variety of ingredients, including milk, fruits, vegetables, flours, grains and beans, nuts, and seeds. With many external influences, mainly from India and Tibet, and internal variants, the Nepali sweets are truly diversified. Some Nepali sweets are quite sweet, and often paired with plain foods such as yogurt, poori, swari, and fruits. The sweets are flavored with green and black cardamom seeds, saffron, and essences. They are decorated with finely chopped cashews, almonds, coconut, pistachios, silver leaf, and many kinds of nuts. Sweets are usually purchased, but some are prepared at home using a timeless old fashioned method, especially for traditional celebratory occasions, like Tihar itself.
The true magic of these traditional confectionaries can be credited to the “halwai” shops in the smallest and most hidden portions of the valley. Traditional spirit lies in these small outlets, where even till now, the original methods are used for making the confectionaries, most notably, in the winding streets of Ason, Mangalbazaar, and Bhaktapur. When Tihar comes, it enlivens the spirits of these cozy looking shops. Some family names are strongly associated with the production of such sweets, from older times. One such family name is the Newari clan of Rajkarnikars, who are also called halwais or “palma halwais”. The traditional Rajkarnikar occupation is making candy and sweet confections, or mithai, as we know it. Although slowly declining in number, hundreds of Rajkarnikar sweet shops, or mithai pasals, are still found in the deepest corners of the valley, rejuvenated every year by Tihar’s festive atmosphere.
Once a year, the festival rekindles the fire from the old days, and sweets of all kinds begin to make their presence felt in their stands, with no shortage of us mithai lovers lining up. Whether it be for offering to our gods, gifting it to siblings, or even as a treat to our pets, we love mithai. Just like these shops, households also partake in making the staple confectionaries for themselves, particularly for Tihar.
When it comes to Tihar, the staple sweet dish is sel-roti, which resembles a large, thin, puffed-up doughnut, and has a crispy texture with reddish brown color. It is prepared by grinding soaked rice to create a thick batter, which is then mixed with sugar, clarified butter, mashed banana, and water, and poured into bubbling oil to be deep-fried. Jeri, also known as jalebi or jilphi, is one of the most common sweets in Nepal. They are deep-fried, pretzel-shaped, yellow-orange loops dipped in saffron syrup. Jeri tastes best when freshly made, as they are crisp, and the filling is succulent and aromatic. The next day, jeri loses its crispiness and the filling crystallizes, but they are still delicious. Traditionally, jeri is paired with soft Nepali bread called swari. Other than these common sweets, one sweet is more prevalent in Tihar: anarsaa. The traditional sweet is freshly fried until lightly browned, and stacked up neatly. It is kept this way until all the extra clarified butter is drained from the patties, before moving them onto a decorative platter.
Newari influence is represented by sugary sweets such as lakhamari, which is prepared with pre-soaked ground rice, ground black urad beans, wheat flour, butter, and water. All the ingredients are mixed together to form a pourable batter. It is then shaped into round coiled design, and deep-fried in a large Nepali frying pan until light golden brown. The finished product is allowed to rest before it is glazed with light icing to create a translucent satiny finish. Sweetened yogurt, juju dhau, is another local favorite stemming from the Newari community. Juju dhau literally means “king yogurt” in Nepal Bhasa. It is a specialty of the town of Bhaktapur. Dhau (yogurt), along with chopped fruits, is the staple dessert at any Newari feast during Tihar.
Tihar, especially, is even more of a sweet tooth-friendly festival, with the availability of a wide array of sweets. The festive sweets are more decorative, infused with cardamom, saffron, and many other fancy ingredients. The more popular of these confectionaries are laddu, peda, rasbari, and lalmohan. The main ingredients of peda are khoa, sugar, and traditional flavorings, including cardamom seeds, pistachio nuts, and saffron. The color varies from creamy white to caramel. Laddus are made of flour, minced dough, and sugar, with other ingredients that vary by recipe, such as besan ko laddu, or even coconut laddu. Rasbari and lalmohan are two similar kinds of juicy sweet balls. Both made from milk, one is made from the light cheese, while other is made from boiling khoa at low temperature.
The sweet shops around the valley are on the decline, or are diversifying their shops to include other dishes, as solely sweet making has made it hard to run their business. This is because, sometimes, these sweets remain dormant, unpopular, and even humble to the eye. Also not the healthiest of foods, these sweets are ignored most times. However, when Tihar is around, love returns back for these confections. Love to the sweet, savory, and aromatic foods that mirror our flavorful traditions, and the Nepali tendency to never forget their roots. In the current modern era, where cakes, pastries, pies, and puddings are prevalent, for Tihar we enjoy our own homemade sweets guilt free, ignoring the regulars for a while.