Why sweets are an important part of Diwali – and which ones you should try

  • Like Christmas and Lunar New Year, sweet treats are a traditional part of the Festival of Lights, celebrated by many people in South Asia
  • Since India is a massive country with numerous different regions and cultures, there are many types of desserts that people can enjoy
Dannie Aildasani |

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Indian sweets, called mithai, are an important part of Diwali celebrations. Photo: Shutterstock

What would Christmas be without candy canes, or Lunar New Year without traditional candy boxes? Sweets are a treasured part of many holidays – and Diwali is no different.

Diwali, the festival of lights, is one of the biggest festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists in India and other South Asian countries.

What is Diwali? An explainer

“[In India] sweets are used to celebrate everything,” said Tanvir Bhasin, co-founder of Hong Kong-based takeaway Indian restaurant Bengal Brothers. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘Let’s get sweets to sweeten everyone’s mouth’. They’re seen as a gateway to god.”

While the origin story of the holiday varies depending on the region, it does have one common theme: it celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is a time of prayer, celebration and coming together with family and community.

“[During this time] Indian restaurants and homes put out diyas [candles or clay lamps], and the evening starts with puja [prayers] to Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth. This refers to all sorts of wealth, not just financial, but also areas like cultural and spiritual wealth as well,” explained Bhasin.

Diya lamps are lit during the Diwali celebration. Photo: Shutterstock

Sweets, called mithai, are a big part of the festival – you’re even meant to offer them to the gods at the temple. After they’re offered to the gods, they can be enjoyed by other prayer goers, followed by friends, family and the people who made them.

Since India is such a massive country, filled with many different cultures and styles of food, the types of sweets people prepare for the holiday varies greatly depending on the region.

Head to South Island School for Diwali Night: The Origin Story

“In the north, sweets tend to be wheat based – such as wheat in ghee [clarified butter] with nuts – and made into beautiful shapes,” Bhasin said.

It’s also quite common to have gold or silver leaf in these treats – you are offering them to the gods, after all.

Kaju Katli is a traditional Indian diamond-shaped sweet, or mithai, made using cashew paste and sugar. Photo: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, in the south, desserts tend to be more rice or lentil based, and can include ingredients like coconut to make them extra sweet.

Although the pandemic may have affected some people’s Diwali plans, Bhasin said the way it would force people to keep their circles small was actually more in line with the original intent of Diwali.

“The holiday is meant to be small and community based,” he said, adding that people tend to be extra generous during this time of year, sharing food with as many people as they can.

Since India has so many different regions, it means you will always have new dishes and flavours to try – as well as new histories to explore.

We’re drooling over these laddu made with dried fruits. Photo: Shutterstock

“It’s a 5,000-year-old cuisine with great stories,” said Bhasin. “Those stories are as old as time itself.”

Looking for some traditional sweets to try this Diwali? You could try besan barfi, a north Indian sweet made with gram flour, pistachios and cardamom; kaju katli, a thin bar made from cashew nuts and sugar; or laddu, which comes in a variety of flavours.

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