Saturday marked the last day of the Hindu holiday Diwali, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights. It was also the first and last day Sikhs celebrate Diwali. I know this only because I called Harpreet Singh Toor, chairman of the Sikh Cultural Society, and asked him where to eat for Diwali. "Come to the gurdwara [temple] in Richmond Hill," he answered.
So I did—but first I walked Liberty Avenue in search of the Trinidadian treat doubles, and discovered Trini Flava's Restaurant. With a slogan like "Trini Flavas 2 D Bone," and a hand-printed sign reading Diwali specials, somehow I knew I'd be having more than doubles.
Doubles are the national snack food of Trinidad. Two (hence the name) fried pieces of bara bread are stuffed with channa, or curried chick peas. I ordered mine with everything. At Trini Flava's, everything consists of green mango chutney, tamarind sauce, and habañero hot sauce. Not a bad for a buck. The puffy little sandwich was sweet, sour, and had just a touch of curry heat. Then the hot sauce kicked in. Good thing I bought a bottle of psychedelically colored West Indian Choice Banana Soda.
Once the pleasantly lingering heat died down, it was time for some veggies. (Since it was Diwali the day's menu was meatless; I'll be back for cow heel soup.) The hefty plate pictured at top ($6) of green mango, chataigne, or breadnut, and rice was a study in Indian-influenced Trini cuisine. The chunks of unripe green mango were sweet and fibrous and vibrantly flavored with garlic, curry, and just a hint of habañero.
Trini Flava's only prepares breadnut on special occasions. The owner said it's a "mess of work" to prepare. Peeling the baseball-sized fruit, shredding the flesh, shelling the nuts, and cooking the whole lot takes hours. The soft stringy pulp was infused with curry and pepper and shot through with the sweet, slightly crunchy nuts. As I left the girl behind the counter gave me some Trini style sweets for Diwali. They differed from Indian sweets in that they were flavored with spices like ginger and clove. Perfect for a cold fall walk to my next stop, South Richmond Hill, home to one of the largest Sikh communities outside India.
Vegetarian specialist Punjabi Dhaba was bustling with families stocking up on Indian sweets, which play a central role in the holiday.
These ladies boxed up hundreds of pounds of these caloric colorful treats.
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, presides over trays of gulab jamun and other goodies.
My box included whites and pinks, along with various other hues.
Many of these are available in the sweets shops of Jackson Heights, but this juicy translucent cylinder known as petha was new to me. Unlike the heaver milk-based sweets, petha had a refreshing crunchy texture and flavor. That's because it's made from the gourd of the same name, better known as winter melon. The most famous version, agra petha, is named for the storied location of the Taj Mahal.
As at many Sikh celebrations, langar, a free communal vegetarian meal, is prepared in communal kitchens.
This gentleman was on pakora patrol, frying up dozens and dozens of veggie fritters.
The crunchy chickpea flour battered treats go well with Heinz ketchup, Toor's condiment of choice when eating pakora.
There's a reason Diwali is also known as the Festival of Lights. Come nightfall, hundreds of candles and diwa, or Diwali lamps, were lit by young and old alike outside the gurdwara.
The fuel behind all those diwa? Mustard oil. Outside of an Indian market, I'd never seen so many bottles in one place.
All in all, it was quite an eventful day—and I'm still working through that box of sweets.
105-05 Liberty Avenue, Richmond Hill NY 11417 (map) 718-487-4226
119-16 101 Avenue, South Richmond Hill NY 11419 (map) 718-487-8002
Sikh Cultural Society
95-30, 118th Street, South Richmond Hill NY 11419 (map) 718-846-3333