Diwali Meets Thanksgiving


Restaurateur Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion,  shares her holiday traditions.

The scene illuminates a soothing glow. Night falls and houses flicker colorful candle hues lining each windowsill. Inside her home, a young Rohini Dey relaxes with a full stomach and happy heart as the cooling remnants of green cardamom waft through the air. Only a day ago, New Delhi streets were bustling as people began preparing for one of the biggest Indian holiday celebrations of the year — Diwali.

The past 20 years have painted a slightly different picture for Ms. Dey, who now lives in Chicago. But she continues to keep her family’s annual Diwali traditions alive in her home and restaurant. “Diawli is all about getting together and celebrating being thankful. It reminds me a lot of Thanksgiving, because I associate it with crisp air and it usually falls around November, depending on the lunar calendar,” Ms. Dey says of Diwali, which is also known as the Indian Festival of the Lights.

She recalls her earliest memories of this holiday involving new clothes, delicious food and firecrackers. “As a kid, I remember running around reckless and unsupervised while lighting little rocket bombs in our hands,” shares Ms. Dey with a comforting expression of gratitude in her voice while reflecting on Diwali. “Every street was decorated with beautiful lights. Little oil votives were seen in every house, and the streets became absolutely gorgeous at nightfall,” she says.

“I associate Diwali with a lot of sweets. One thing my mom made was relatively simple and one of a few things I still make for my daughters,” reveals Ms. Dey. “It’s an Indian rice pudding that’s very rich, like a Dulce de Leche. It’s heavy, sweet, warm and comforting,” She then slips into fond memories of enjoying this delectable confection after a long day of cooking: “It’s nice to get into bed with a bowl of that when you’re exhausted and done.”

Ms. Dey keeps Thanksgiving in close line to her Diwali traditions. Each recipe is quite different than those normally be served at a Thanksgiving dinner. “I’m constantly trying different things because serving the same dishes each year gets monotonous,” says the restaurateur, who first opened Vermilion for Thanksgiving in 2004. “I really thought I should be giving everyone a day off, and I didn’t want to stay open on a holiday, but then I thought, ‘let’s give it a shot and see what happens.’ Interestingly, that year Bon Appetit featured us as the most innovative Thanksgiving in the country.”

The Vermilion Thanksgiving dinner caught on and has been recognized in highly esteemed media outlets across the country. “We do very innovative takes on a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So even if it’s turkey, it will have a black cardamom glaze with a cumin lentil stuffing,” she says, pleased. Typically dinner at Vermilion is served all week and is guaranteed to spark your taste buds with new holiday flavors from Ms. Dey’s travels across the globe.

Aside from sharing her holiday traditions with Vermilion guests, Ms. Dey also enjoys the festivities of Diwali with her extended family, either in her own home or at her sister-in-law’s in Atlanta. Whether here or there, Ms. Dey will light a votive and give thanks for the joys of life. And she’ll most likely be found nestled close to a bowl of rice pudding at the end of the day.

By Hannah Towler

What to Expect at Vermilion: An Indian-Latin Thanksgiving

An eclectic option to the majority of Thanksgiving menus, Vermilion continues its tradition of an Indian-Latin Thanksgiving feast. For the adventurous diner, bored of ho-hum turkey and standard stuffing, try the fenugreek black cardamom basted turkey or an equally feisty vegetarian option to match.

Thanksgiving 5 course prix-fixe $55

First course: cranberry spinach salad, naan bites, paneer, apple cider dressing
Second course: warm Columbian yucca cake, tamarind chutney
Third course: pumpkin acorn squash curry leaf soup
Fourth course:fenugreek black cardamom smoked turkey breast, cumin glazed yam lentil stuffing, chorizo beans, cranberry panchpuran chutney
Fifth course: pumpkin cardamom tres leches, spiced candied pecan, nutmeg whipped cream

Bengali (from Calcutta) Rice Pudding ­ – an all-time favorite recipe from the home kitchen of Rohini Dey

2 liters whole milk
3-4 tablespoons brown sugar (preferably gur – raw brown sugar), to taste
2-3 tablespoons rice (washed well & soaked)
8-10 green cardamoms (whole pods)
raisins (to taste)
dates (to taste)
6 large dried bay leaves
a few almonds finely sliced (optional)

1. Heat milk in a large pot on low heat so it doesn’t stick to base, stir constantly.
Add bay leaves and cardamom. Simmer until reduced to two-thirds its original volume.
2. Add rice and let it cook and thicken further.
3. Add brown sugar when rice is tender.
4. Add raisins, dates and finely sliced almonds.
5. Stir constantly (or you’ll have a burnt thick goop!).
6. Enjoy!

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