Celebrating Diwali

a festival of south asian sweets in jackson heights

By Ishita Singh


(Photographs by Ishita Singh)

This Sunday, Hindus across the world will celebrate Diwali, commonly known as the “festival of lights.” Traditionally, participants light small lamps to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into their homes, and family and friends share sweets as a token of goodwill and an offering for prosperity in the year ahead.

In the days leading up to Diwali, South Asian sweets shops across New York City fill with customers buying traditional sweets, like gulab jamun and barfi, to share on this special holiday. To meet this demand, Maharaja Sweets in Jackson Heights, Queens, closes its regular operations in the days leading up to Diwali and converts its café space to focus exclusively on Diwali sweets.

“We have a lot of customers those days,” manager Gurdip Singh said. “The showcase is not big enough so that’s we why set up the tables openly. We don’t sell food [in the restaurant during that time], we set up all the tables for sweets.”

A table running the length of the café served as a divider between employees and the long line of customers packed inside the store on Thursday night. The table itself was barely visible, covered from end to end with trays of colorful sweets. Employees followed customers back and forth, filling one- and two-pound boxes with various combinations of sweets. Customers waiting to be helped walked up and down the tables of sweets, mulling the options carefully before their turn to buy.

Maharaja Sweets prepares 85 different types of sweets for Diwali, ranging from soft, fresh chum chums to barfis, as well as rolls made from nut pastes and chickpea flour-based ladoos. The shop’s top seller is malai chum chum, a soft sweet made with paneer (similar to farmer’s cheese) and stuffed with malai (similar to cream).

“It’s very very popular,” Sukhder Vawa, Maharajah’s owner, said. “Sometimes people come from other states to buy it.”

In addition to their regular offerings, this year Maharaja introduced two new sweets: kesar ladoo, a smaller, less sweet and saffron-scented ladoo, and kaju kesar, made with cashews and also scented with saffron. Both sweets were created especially for this year’s Diwali, though the store will continue to sell them afterwards.

Each year, the multi-step process of making sweets for the Diwali rush begins more than a week in advance, with Maharajah’s sweets-makers first forming fresh paneer or khoya (a milk solid similar to low-moisture ricotta) from the 60 cases of milk that the store receives daily.

Next, the paneer and khoya are cooked and sugar, nuts and other ingredients are added. After being refrigerated overnight, the sweets are formed into individual pieces and garnishes are added before the sweets are placed in baking cups and lined up on trays for customers.

Producing enough sweets to meet the huge demand at Diwali takes a toll on Singh and his kitchen staff. Maharajah Sweets will make 25,000 pounds of sweets between Thursday and this Sunday and expects to sell about 20,000 pounds of sweets during this time.

“We don’t have enough employees for those days,” Singh said, adding that this year the shop hired dishwashers to ease the burden on the sweets makers.

“It’s very hard to prepare all the sweets—it’s a big responsibility,” Vawa added. “But we enjoy it. The customers are very happy—so that encourages us.”

Maharajah Sweets
73-10 37th Ave. (map)
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
(718) 505-2680

Ishita Singh also writes about food at Bites Out of Life.

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