Nothing spells out Diwali louder than an array of colourful sweets drenched in syrup and ghee. In Fort Kochi, this festival is brought to life by a Gujarati family of five, whose lives revolve around serving the best north Indian sweets to Kochiites. Started in 1953, the waft of Shantilal S Mithaiwala's sweets transcends the Gujarati Street in Mattancherry as their customers are scattered all over Kerala.
During the week building up to Diwali, you can spot a large crowd buzzing around the counter of the shop where the third-generation members of the family sit smiling as they take orders for jalebis, gulab jamuns, laddus, and what not. Ask them how they plan to celebrate this festival themselves, and they say, "Just this way, selling sweets till the day ends.''
You can see a vigorous middle-aged Narendra Santilal managing the affairs of the busy store. He is the second generation of the family that left behind everything and moved to Kochi to sell traditional Gujarati sweets. His kids and grandchildren were educated and brought up here, away from home yet embraced by an amalgamation of cultures.
Every year, the connoisseurs introduce new items to the Diwali special menu and this year they have combined a rather tangy berry with milky goodness to create the black current burfi! You need to taste it yourselves to savour the uniqueness of this treat. Last year they had introduced many badam-flavoured delicacies which were such a hit that they decided to continue this year, too.
Another favourite seller during Diwali are their crispy yet syrupy jalebis. The Kerala version of jalebi is more snacky in nature which renders it a puffy texture which is quite different from the authentic crispy north Indian jalebis drenched in sugar syrup. Shantilal's has mastered the art of combining these two varieties of jalebi to offer their loyals who probably will not enjoy any other kind of jalebi elsewhere.
The demand for the box of their assorted sweets is always high as you get to taste a unique array of sweets ranging from laddus, halwa, and pedas to chocolate barfi, milk cake, and balushahi – a special glazed doughnut.
Festival of lights
On the day of Diwali, Narendra, his two sons, their wives, and their 20-something employees stay too busy to be a part of any traditional celebrations but they find satisfaction in being part of other peoples' celebrations. Shantilal Mithaiwala shines like a star on top of a Christmas tree in a lit-up Gujarati street on Diwali night.
The day after Diwali, marks the fourth day of conventional celebrations wherein many Hindu communities worship their textbooks. This family, however, worships one thing closest to them – the ledger of their sweetshop. The Malayali employees join the family in their celebrations as they prepare traditional Gujarati food and burst crackers to mark the festival of lights!
The shop rarely sees an empty counter. On non-festive days, too, there are customers waiting to buy their favourite sweet from their assortment. Although Diwali and Eid are the peak times for sweet sales, regulars walk into the store everyday for there fix of evening tea and snacks.
Famous savoury options include kachoris (crisp puris stuffed with dal or potato), aloo bonda, and authentic Gujarati dhokla which is a subtly spiced steamed cake glazed with mustard seeds in piping hot oil. They have also incorporated local snacks like bhajis into their menu to make sure no customer leaves wanting more.