In Texas, when temps begin to lazily drop from the triple digits and crisp fall weather inches nearer, it is a reminder that the festive season is also at hand. For Raja Sweets, Houston’s oldest Indian restaurant and confectionery, this means preparations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, are in full swing.
The religious holiday, which commemorates the Hindu new year, typically falls in October or November, with its precise date decided based on the lunar calendar. This year, it falls on November 12. On Diwali, worshippers honor Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, and celebrate the victory of light over darkness by gathering together, illuminating the home with diyas (oil lamps made from clay), and cracking fireworks into the night.
Of the many Diwali customs, gifting mithai—bite-size sweets made from milk, flour, and sugar—to friends, family, and neighbors is among the most popular. Like a Thanksgiving pie handmade with care, or a platter of Christmas tamales that required days of laborious effort, freshly prepared mithai at Diwali is something special. And, over the years, getting that mithai from Raja Sweets has become a Texas tradition.
The family-owned restaurant and bakery is located in southwest Houston in the Mahatma Gandhi District, a bustling thoroughfare known for its bounty of South Asian boutiques, stores, and restaurants. Raja Sweets was founded by the late Yogi Gahunia, an Indian immigrant who moved to the states in the late seventies, relocating from Cleveland to Houston in favor of warmer weather. At the time, Houston was lacking businesses that served Indians, and Gahunia took notice.
As a veteran restaurateur who previously operated an eatery in the United Kingdom and another in Ohio, he came up with the idea of a restaurant that offered freshly prepared mithai in multiple varieties, just like the sweet shops in India. In 1986, he made the dream a reality by opening Raja Sweets in a retail strip mall. Gahunia banded together with fellow South Asian immigrants Aku Patel and Ramesh Lulla, who owned neighboring businesses Karat 22 Jewelers and Sari Sapne clothing boutique, respectively, to designate the area as Houston’s “Little India.”
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The small pocket of the city that started with three businesses would go on to grow to more than three hundred run by Indians and Pakistanis, and was named the Mahatma Gandhi District by the City of Houston in 2010. Gahunia passed away almost a decade before the announcement, but his legacy lives on. He, Patel, and Lulla are honored as the founding fathers of the district that continues to serve Houston’s large South Asian community, which has grown to include approximately 82,000 people with Indian ancestry and 28,000 Pakistanis, according to the 2010 census.
Raja Sweets remains a family-run business, with Gahunia’s wife, daughter, and relatives having taken the reins. In the months leading up to Diwali, it’s all hands on deck. “Preparations begin at least two to three months in advance,” says Sharan Gahunia, Yogi’s daughter. “And on the weekend of Diwali, we double our staff, plus we have family members and friends on standby.” She confesses that having to send people on a sudden errand for a bag of sugar or a gallon of milk is not unusual.
A line of guests winding through the small dining room, waiting to handpick sweets from glass cases, is a common year-round occurrence at Raja Sweets, but during Diwali, it’s a guarantee.
Like at a doughnut shop or creamery, it is a thrill to pick and choose from all that’s showcased behind the glass, but for customers who have their minds made up, Raja Sweets welcomes and encourages preorders by phone.
On any given day, Raja Sweets offers approximately thirty types of mithai, including varieties like jalebi, deep-fried spirals made from all-purpose flour and corn flour with a sticky, syrup-soaked shell and chewy bite; multiple kinds of burfi, fudge-like pieces made from milk powder, ghee, and whole milk that can vary in flavor; and gulab jamun, lightly fried balls of dough in a spiced syrup. All are made from scratch daily in the Raja Sweets kitchen. On average, 1,000 pounds of mithai are sold per week, with eight pieces making up a pound. Preceding the holiday, the restaurant can sell upwards of twenty times that amount. In 2022, the Diwali rush resulted in a whopping 25,000 pounds of mithai being sold in a single week.
After being in business for nearly four decades, this kind of demand does not come as a surprise to the Gahunia family, but since 2020, they have been faced with new challenges. “We have to have all of the ingredients we need, and ever since COVID happened, the supply chain has been an issue,” Sharan explains. She cites milk powder, specifically, as having been difficult to obtain this year because of shortages at Sysco. Coincidentally, Sharan’s uncle (Yogi’s brother) operates a restaurant, also called Raja Sweets, in Union City, California, and has been FedExing ingredients to Houston when needed.
Beyond ingredients for mithai, Sharan must consider the other items needed to prepare for Diwali, like cards and decorative boxes, which is a lengthier process. “Six months out, we order a nice variety of mithai boxes from India,” she says. The New Delhi–based company she orders from every year supplies sizes that can pack up to twenty pounds of mithai per box. When the shipment arrives, they get the boxes ready to showcase in the shop.
“We get them into a storage unit, unwrap every single one, and then air them out because they have a strong aroma.” She says placing a simple cup of vinegar on the floor of the unit helps absorb the scent. Finally, in the weeks leading up to Diwali they are transported the one-mile distance from the unit to Raja Sweets, and stacked on tables and shelves for customers to peruse. Along with an extravagant balloon display set up at the counter, the intricately designed boxes add a vibrant pop of color and a festive atmosphere throughout the restaurant.
Mithai plays a starring role at Raja Sweets, but some forget the restaurant also serves a full menu of Indian cuisine, with dishes like goat curry and butter chicken on offer all day. Food is prepped from 9 to 11 every morning, while the remainder of the day is spent making sweets. “Burfi is so popular during Diwali, so we make ten times the amount as we normally do, in a number of flavors like chocolate and pistachio,” she says.
In an effort to best utilize their time, the staff prepares what they can up to three weeks in advance. Sweets like besan ladoos, which are made with gram flour, and salty snacks like sev, crisp pieces of noodles made from chickpea flour, can be made ahead of time due to their longer shelf life. The staff is then able to prioritize making the bounty of milk-based sweets, which can be prepared no more than three days prior. This preparation helps when bulk orders come into the shop. “Sometimes, we get large orders for seventy-five boxes, or more, from Houston’s India Culture Center,” Sharan says.
While Sharan and her family do everything possible to plan and prepare for the Diwali rush, she admits they have been particularly stretched thin the last few years. “When the world opened back up post COVID, we became increasingly busy during Diwali,” she says, adding that Raja Sweets would often sell out of its famed mithai within hours of opening. Smaller bakeries across the state experienced supply shortages resulting in less production, while many Texas towns lack South Asian shops altogether. Making a visit to Houston, where endless Diwali supplies and mithai could be found in one place, became more appealing.
“We have witnessed masses of people coming in from San Antonio and Dallas, plus buses of others from all around Texas,” she adds. “In the last couple of years, we could hardly keep up with production.” She maintains that before the pandemic and the resulting challenge of sourcing ingredients, this was hardly an issue. Slowly but surely, they are adapting to the rise in demand, and charging full-speed ahead.
This year, Sharan is anticipating lots of activity, with the rush beginning at least a week before. “With the holiday falling on a weekend, we will likely see record sales between Thursday and Sunday,” she says.
Despite the hustle and bustle and long lines, guests can expect a warm Texas welcome from the Gahunia family. And with each well-stocked box of mithai, heartfelt wishes for a happy Diwali and prosperous new year.
Source : Texas Monthly