How Culinary Icon Maneet Chauhan Celebrates Holi—and Why You Should, Too

From the colorful powder to decadent foods, Maneet Chauhan goes all out when it comes to the Hindu holiday.

When Maneet Chauhan moved from India to the U.S. to attend the Culinary Institute of America and make a name for herself in the food industry, she was only 20 years old. Being that young and determined made the transition pretty painless (with the exception of figuring out a new currency), Chauhan says, but one of the major contrasts between the two countries actually made it much easier for her to adapt: She went from working in kitchens surrounded by all men who didn’t take her seriously to finding a community of women.

It’s been about 20 years since she moved across the world, and between then and now, Chauhan has done it all: She’s become an executive chef, the founder of a culinary and hospitality company, a judge on shows like Chopped, and a cookbook author, all while keeping her identity and advocacy at the forefront. 

Maneet Chauhan

Rachel Ayotte | Design: Better Homes & Gardens

“Right now, I think what is very important is that women chefs, like myself … we have shown that it is possible to be successful in this industry,” she says. “That’s why when younger chefs can see us, they are inspired because they are like, ‘Okay, if she did it, then I can do it.’”

The intersection of being a woman and being Indian meets symbolically and literally for Chauhan during Holi, a Hindu festival that falls on the same day as International Women’s Day this year (March 8). Here’s what the holiday means to her, how she celebrates, and, of course, what she cooks for the festivities.

Holi With Maneet Chauhan

Holi is known as the festival of colors and a welcoming of the spring season—a triumphant party for making it through winter. Growing up and experiencing it in India, Chauhan looks forward to the holiday every year for multiple reasons, the main one being that it’s “very boisterous.” And like most festivals around the world, she acknowledges that it’s marked by food.

“It’s usually those dishes that take a longer time to cook, which are really decadent things, like deep-fried, sweet—those kinds of things,” she says. “What I used to really look forward to at Holi is cooking at home the sweets that take a long time to make, which are deep-fried and delicious.” 

Any time you’re going to an auspicious event or meeting someone in India, you always have to bring some kind of sweet as an offering, Chauhan says. One of her favorites for Holi is gujiyas, a type of sweet empanada, traditionally filled with coconut and milk, wrapped in pastry and soaked in a sugar syrup. You’ll also find her eating barfi, a traditional Indian fudge that can be made into different flavors (her favorite is cashew), and malpua, which she describes as Indian fried pancakes. But let’s get this straight: Chauhan loves sweet and savory equally. A Holi dish she makes that brings all the flavors, from sweet and salty to spicy and savory, and defines the holiday is chaat. The name translates in English to “to lick,” meaning you’re probably going to have the urge to go back and lick the plate after you’ve finished yours off. 

Every year, Chauhan finds ways to put her own spin on the classics, experimenting with flavors by making dishes like duck samosas and pineapple and saffron deep-fried pancakes.

“There’s always a twist I do on the traditional favorites,” she says. “I get inspired by the environment I’m in.”

For home chefs looking to recreate Holi dishes or make their own version, Chauhan encourages them to not be intimidated and to just have fun with it. She likes to post Instagram tutorials of herself cooking things like chicken tikka masala to show that there’s really nothing to be afraid of—after watching, her followers are usually like, “‘Ah, this is so easy,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Yep.’ You make it in your mind that it sounds [complicated], and that’s why you don’t try it. Just try it.”

Along with the food, Holi is all about the color. Chauhan wants to give her kids the experience of celebrating like they do in India, so they decorate their home with bright hues and rangoli patterns, throw a gathering with friends and family, and essentially have a Bollywood party—complete with throwing colored powders on one another and dancing. (She always tells her guests what she lacks in grace, she makes up for in enthusiasm.)

When she spent her first Thanksgiving in the U.S., Chauhan remembers how happy she was and how grateful she felt to the family that invited her to celebrate it with them. Experiencing that, she understands firsthand how learning about holidays from other cultures is a way to spread that happiness.

“Joy can be spread through education of all these different festivals. I always associate Holi with being happy,” she says. “That's exactly what I think that all of these festivals do, is they show us how similar we are as opposed to how different we are. And I think that all of these bring people closer together, and you celebrate and respect each other’s cultures and traditions a lot more, and I think that’s what makes it so amazing.”

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