Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, is among the biggest South Asian celebrations of the year. This year Diwali (called Deepavali in South India) extends from Friday, November 10 to Wednesday, November 15, with its biggest day of celebration falling on Sunday, November 12. Observances vary across India and among the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain faiths across the world, but generally symbolize the triumph of light over darkness and the start of new beginnings.
The chefs of one New Orleans restaurant, LUFU NOLA, are feeling the promise of new beginnings after a whirlwind opening that saw their small but fierce pop-up become one of the city’s most celebrated new restaurants. Now, following four months of packed nights, the chefs are preparing to serve a special Diwali dinner on November 12. “It feels amazing,” says co-owner Sarthak Samantray, who notes that it’s their fourth year celebrating Diwali as LUFU, but the first in their own restaurant. Diwali is “one of the most awaited festivals in India and is as big as Christmas to us. We love sharing this part of us with the city.”
The journey for Samantray and Aman Kota, later joined by Sachin Darade, hasn’t been an easy one. It included the ambiguous closure of its previous host, Pythian Market, a food hall that was first evicted in November 2022. A settlement between the landlord and food hall operator allowed its vendors, including LUFU, to briefly continue operating, but it closed for good in late December without much clarity or warning for its food stalls, some of whom still believed it would reopen in 2023. The chefs of LUFU said at the time they “loved the market and the people who come to see us every day,” and hoped to remain there.
They didn’t know it then, that struggle would lead to the start of something bigger and better.
After a few months of uncertainty, collaborations with hotspots like Turkey and the Wolf, and a dip back into pop-ups, the trio found an address of their own in the hectic heart of the Central Business District. They signed a lease for 301 St. Charles Avenue, a former Willie’s Chicken Shack, in spring 2023, and spent the next few months transforming it into a modern, elegant space with a bar, navy blue-painted brick walls, breezy light fixtures, colorful murals, and the focal point, a large wall map of India delineated by its regional dishes. LUFU, which stands for Let Us Feed U, opened as LUFU NOLA Indian Kitchen & Bar on July 13.
The chefs’ “uncommon” Diwali menu for the November 12 dinner is meant to push the boundaries of traditional Indian cuisine, something the team says they focus on in their kitchen every day. “The dishes are very different from what we usually eat during Diwali in India,” Kota says, and are particularly seasonal, another signifier of new beginnings.
The five-course dinner opens with a fall shorba, or soup, made with pumpkin, bottle gourd (also known as calabash), and malai, or cream. The chaat uses spaghetti squash instead of potatoes or peas but will be garnished traditionally, followed by an appetizer of scallops served with bessara. The main course is venison with burnt coconut and black sesame, the latter of which is believed to absorb negative energies in Hinduism. Dessert, which the chefs note is central to Diwali celebrations at home, is slyly called, “Not a gulab jamun,” a traditional fixture at Diwali. Instead, the sweet end to the meal is chenna jhilli, a fried cheese that is then soaked in sugar syrup, like galub jamun.
The chefs will be thinking of their families in India on Sunday night (they are all three from different parts of the subcontinent). “Diwali brings family together, cousins under the same roof, uncles and aunties,” says Samantray. “The best part is being with the family and lighting up diya,” he says, “and fireworks.”