The last year was particularly hard on the restaurant industry. Heena Patel, chef and co-owner of Besharam, a regional Gujarati restaurant located in San Francisco, was not immune to the endless challenges it presented. Yet while she admits to TZR that “we have all been through a lot” in the past year or so, she also explains that she was able to take something positive from the difficulties. “The pandemic taught me to slow down and be more fearless,” she shares. “I named the restaurant ‘Besharam.’ That translates to mean ‘shameless,’ and more than ever, I ask myself, ‘Am I Besharam enough?’ That allows me to push my own boundaries and not worry about failing.”
Patel is pouring that bold new perspective on life into her approach to food — especially now, with the arrival of the five-day holiday Diwali, which her restaurant is honoring with a one-night-only feast on Nov. 4. “This year, Diwali is a celebration of exactly where I am now in the present moment,” she says. “I'm serving my favorite dishes to my guests and connecting with them through this menu that not only represents my experiences of Diwali when I was growing up, but where I am today as a chef.”
As Patel describes it, Diwali (also known as the “Festival of Lights”), can be thought of as if Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's were wrapped into one five-day celebration. During that time, those participating thank the harvest, say prayers to gods, and welcome the new year. “Diwali represents the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshman, were forced to exile for 14 years, and Diwali celebrates Rama’s eventual defeat of the evil spirit Ravan, and his return to his home.”
The chef herself remembers the holiday as a joyous occasion during her childhood spent shopping and preparing treats with family. “I always loved the happy atmosphere all around me. Our house was decorated with rangolis and diyas, and we had new gifts of clothes and jewelry from elders,” she recalls.
It was also a time filled with food. “Growing up, during Diwali week, Mom made whatever our hearts desired,” says Patel. “It was magical and we felt like royalty with so many options, from snacks to sweets to extravagant meals.”
With her newfound sense of fearlessness and a California lens, Patel is continuing to carry on those traditions this year at Besharam with a four-course, family-style meal featuring her favorite regional Gujarati dishes that harken back to her childhood in India celebrating the holiday. “With our celebration at Besharam, I hope to capture that spirit of excitement and joy through dishes that honor those traditions.” Discover a few of the recipes Patel plans to serve in commemoration, ahead.
Combine one cup of cornmeal, ½ a cup of corn flour, and two tablespoons of all-purpose flour in a large bowl. Add 1 ½ teaspoons of salt, four tablespoons of castor sugar, two teaspoons of turmeric powder, one cup of small cubed Granny Smith apple, one teaspoon of minced serrano chili paste, one teaspoon of ginger juice, and one teaspoon of minced garlic paste. Add five tablespoons of water (or as needed) to mix well. Rest mixture for 15 minutes.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325°F. Line a rimmed cake pan with parchment paper. Grease the paper with oil.
Add one tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 ½ teaspoons of eno (sweet bicarbonate soda) to the handvo batter. Mix slowly. Add water if it's too thick, taking care to not disturb the air bubbles while mixing. Pour batter onto a greased cake pan and bake for 20 minutes or until a metal skewer comes out clean. Leave out to cool completely. Once the handvo cake is cooled, slowly turn it upside down and remove the parchment paper. Cut the cake into two-inch squares.
Meanwhile, prepare one cup of halved strawberries. Add two tablespoons of sugar and two teaspoons of lemon juice and toss to combine. Let sit at room temperature and toss and stir frequently. Then, place one square piece of handvo in the center of the serving dish. Sprinkle one teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds and crushed spring fried curry leaves. Drizzle the top with extra virgin olive oil and top with fresh strawberries.
In a bowl, mix one quart of minced chana dal paste*, ½ a cup of semolina, three tablespoons of sugar, four tablespoons of canola oil, one teaspoon of turmeric, salt to taste, one tablespoon of citric acid, and water as needed. Mix well. Add three tablespoons of split chickpeas, soaked, and whip the mixture with a soft hand until it forms a smooth paste.
Meanwhile, set up a steamer with water at the base on a high flame with one stainless steel oiled thali (round platter) in it. The water in the steamer needs to reach a boiling point. Add one teaspoon of eno to the batter. Mix gently and the mixture will seem to froth up. Immediately pour mixture over thali, and cover the steamer immediately. Cook for 30 minutes.
*For chana dal paste: Soak split chana dal for three to four hours. In a Vitamix, crush dal, adding water as needed. The batter should be pancake consistency.
In a bowl, mix two cups of whole wheat flour, two teaspoons of salt, and four tablespoons of canola oil. Rub well to incorporate. Slowly add ⅓ cup of water and knead soft dough. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and rest at least half an hour. Just before using, knead again. Have an additional ½ cup of all-purpose flour and ¼ cup canola oil ready for the next steps.
Heat a non-stick skillet to medium heat. Divide the dough into eight uniform-sized balls. With the help of a rolling pin, roll each dough ball into a six-inch-diameter circle. Using a brush, apply a thin spread of oil and sprinkle of flour. Fold in half and repeat the process of applying oil and flour. Fold in half again to create a triangular shape. Slowly spread to reach a circle that’s approximately eight inches in diameter.
Place the rolled bread on a hot skillet. When you see it form small air bubbles, flip the bread. Drizzle one tablespoon of oil and press lightly with the help of a spatula. Flip the bread and cook until golden brown in color. Serve hot.