In Mumbai, an Intimate Diwali Dinner Party

During the Hindu festival of Diwali, intricate neon-hued sand decorations called rangoli embellish the entrances of homes across India and the diaspora, their presence intended to ward off evil and usher in good fortune. At a recent Diwali dinner party at the Mumbai restaurant Masque, its owner, Aditi Dugar, 40, and chef, Varun Totlani, 31, paid homage to this tradition by welcoming their guests with an edible play on rangoli: slices of cured barramundi from the Andaman Islands, in the northeastern Indian Ocean, topped with colorful garnishes like yellow fennel flowers, radish microgreens and red pomegranate arils.

“Diwali is the most important festival for us; it’s our new year,” Dugar said. In Mumbai, celebrations for the occasion can be big, impersonal affairs, but for this event, she kept her guest list to 13 people — just enough to fill the counter at Masque’s test kitchen, Masque Lab. Hosting a small group, she said, felt like “a sigh of relief.”

Masque’s owner, Aditi Dugar, lined the chef’s counter with flowers arranged in colorful paper-wrapped tubes.Credit…Deepti Asthana

Masque, which opened in 2016 and has since become one of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants, is known for its modern Indian cuisine highlighting ingredients and techniques from around the country (a cucumber, tomato and mango salad might be topped with pickled Goan seaweed; dessert might be a sorbet Popsicle made with cactus from Rajasthan). And the five-course tasting menu for the Diwali meal, prepared by Totlani, was no different — though there were some tweaks to the service. “Usually we explain every dish,” said Dugar. “But this was a party; we wanted it to be casual.” She also added a few colorful accents, like red velvet drapes and bright flowers, to the otherwise muted industrial-style private dining room.

The night of the event, as guests contended with the Mumbai traffic, Dugar lit dozens of diyas — festive tea lights that symbolize the victory of light over darkness in Hindu culture — that lined the doorway. And by 8, the room was full of people dressed in glittering saris and tailored kurtas. They snacked on passed canapés including pani poori (crisp shells of fried semolina dough) filled with spiced avocado mousse, before sitting down for the feast. “If somebody came to a Diwali party at my home, I’d want it to be grand,” said Dugar, “and Masque is my second home.”

Dugar repurposed glazed chai cups for the customary Diwali diyas, decorative tea lights, that framed the dining room’s doorways.Credit…Deepti Asthana

The attendees: Dugar and her husband, the jeweler and restaurateur Aditya Dugar, 42, celebrated with friends, including the architect Ashiesh Shah, 43, who designed Masque; Kulsum Shadab Wahab, 40, the executive director of the nonprofit the Hothur Foundation; the film producer Monisha Advani, 52; Yeshwant Holkar, 41, the managing partner of the hospitality group Ahilya Experiences, and his wife, Nyrika Holkar, 41, an executive director at the manufacturing company Godrej & Boyce; and Maithili Ahluwalia, 45, the founder of the Mumbai-based lifestyle concept brand Bungalow Eight.

The table: Guests sat atMasque Lab’s chef’s table, a stone counter with a view of the open kitchen, which Dugar had adorned with colorful paper-wrapped metal tubes containing stems of marigold, anthurium and amaranth — all grown in India. The main course was served on round brass thalis,individual platters that hold small servings of food and various condiments, designed by Dugar and Totlani. “That’s how you would eat at home,” said Dugar, “so that’s what we did.”

Passed canapés like pani poori filled with spiced avocado mousse were among the first bites of the evening.Credit…Deepti Asthana

The food: Totlani prepared a custom menu for the evening that featured a few Masque signatures, among other dishes. While not wholly traditional, “it’s food that I would want to eat during a celebration,” he said. Thin corn flour crackers called mathri were served with corn chaat and house-made chutneys. The next course was Totlani’s interpretation of Texas barbecue: dry-brined and smoked pork ribs served with crispy rice. The main course was composed of masala braised lamb (or Kashmiri morels for the vegetarians), asparagus grown in the state of Maharashtra, rice and pav, a popular fluffy bread roll often toasted in ghee (Totlani’s version is made with a buttery laminated dough). For dessert, guests enjoyed a Masque icon: a hollowed-out cacao shell filled with chocolate mousse made from Indian-grown cacao, cacao fruit salad and cacao nib brittle.The parting bite was coconut fudge finished with edible gold leaf, a nod to the Diwali rituals of eating sweets and giving gifts.

Garnishes for the edible rangoli course.Credit…Deepti Asthana

The drinks: Masque’s head mixologist, Ankush Gamre, created a rangoli-inspired cocktail for the evening: a vodka martini topped with colorful dots of chile-, charcoal- and turmeric-infused oils. There was also a turmeric-infused gin and tonic and a selection of wines, including a 2019 Berton Vineyards Metal Label Durif from Australia and a 2020 Crios torrontés from Argentina. Even the water had a special garnish — slices of fragrant Gondhoraj lime from Bengal.

The music: Dugar and her team have fine-tuned the restaurant’s playlist, which was the soundtrack for the Diwali dinner, over the past 10 years. “It progresses as the meal progresses,” she said. The selection consists of mellow European dance and ambient electronic songs from artists like Deep Chills and Tame Impala and ends with the melancholy beats of “Sunset Lover” by the French D.J. and music producer Petit Biscuit.

The main course was served on brass thalis, traditional Indian platters, designed by Dugar and the restaurant’s chef, Varun Totlani.Credit…Deepti Asthana

The conversation: Guests started the night by sharing their Diwali plans and work news, which included a recent Emmy nomination for the Hindi-language historical drama series “Rocket Boys,” on which Advani is a producer. During the meal, people discussed the quality of the ingredients and how far the appreciation of Indian culture has come, both locally and globally, in recent years.

A hosting tip: In parts of India, there’s a philosophy of hospitality known as khatirdari, which holds that a guest should be catered to as if they were royalty and that anticipating their needs and desires — be they dietary restrictions or a few extra sweets at the end of the night — is the utmost expression of care. This spirit informs everything Dugar does at Masque and while “it’s kind of unreasonable in a way,” she said with a smile, it’s also one key to a successful dinner party.

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