People heading to this year's Auckland Diwali Festival hoping to find their favourite Diwali food treats may find some of them taste a little different.
Several food vendors taking part in this weekend's annual event in Aotea Square and Queen St are preparing healthier variations of curries, snacks and treats after being offered advice by ATEED. The advice is part of an Auckland Council initiative promoting healthy eating.
While healthy options aren't mandatory, the advice has prompted calls from some members of the local Indian community for the council to "leave our festive food alone".
ATEED and the Auckland District Health Board held a workshop a couple of weeks ago with Diwali stallholders and provided training on healthier deep frying and worked with them to see how their menus could be improved.
Public health dietician Jacqui Yip said stallholders were being supported to developing innovative healthier items and no sugary drinks would be sold at the event this year.
AUT University Professor of Diversity Edwina Pio said festive food had an emotional appeal, and authorities should keep their focus on larger businesses who command daily choices rather than festival vendors.
"There is an emotional appeal to festival foods which serve as cultural identity markers and the wisdom of food is its linkages to joyousness, religion and socioeconomic status," Pio said.
"It is a fact that more 'unhealthy' and often fast and furious ingredients have changed the slower and gentler contours of the festival of lights."
There will be 70 street stalls at this year's Diwali event which runs from midday to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday. It was attended by about 55,000 last year.
"The overarching image of India in the minds of Europeans and British seem to be of deep fried foods, syrupy sweetmeats and the ubiquitous butter chicken, biryani and roti," Pio said.
"Diwali is more than a diet to kill diabetics and create heart attacks ... free choice of individuals trumps unnecessary government intimacy in our food choices."
Pio said a heavy hand on customary beliefs, family traditions and ancestral memories pertaining to festivals required caution.
"While policy guidelines may be necessary, they are only the tip of the iceberg," Pio added.
"Go to the big boys and girls, leave the little ones alone ... let nostalgia and reminiscing and sharing of the heterogeneous cuisine enliven, enlighten and elevate our food choices and our perceptions of diversity."
NZME office administrator Sabrina Fernandes, originally from Mumbai, sampled both the original and healthier options of two items vendor Jango Mumbai Street Food will be selling at the festival.
Fernandes, who is in her 50s and a foodie, says swapping white with wholemeal bread in vada pav - a dish consisting of deep fried potato dumpling in a bread bun native to the Indian state of Maharashtra - did not make the cut.
"It's just too dry and coarse, and cutting back on margarine also makes the healthier vada pav more difficult to eat," she said.
"It's close to the real thing, but not the real thing and not something that I would be proud to let my non-Indian friends taste and say that this is Indian street food."
Fernandes, however, did give her thumbs up to swapping canola oil with rice bran oil in the frying of samosa.
"This is good for home cooking, but when you go to an event like Diwali, you'd like the food to be kept to its original," she said.
"People who know about Indian street food, and those who want to introduce friends to Indian food at the event, don't want a variation to what is traditional."
Yip said the healthy food initiative for Diwali was part of an effort to normalise healthy food for Aucklanders.
"With Diwali, it's just a great opportunity to promote health," Yip said.
South Asians are at risk of obesity and 12 per cent of Indians in Auckland are living with diabetes, she said.
Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cerebrovascular diseases were the top three avoidable potential mortality rates among South Asians.
Indians also had a low prevalence of physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption compared to other ethnic groups in New Zealand.
"Food is a really great way to deal with health and wellbeing. We don't want people to be on medicine," Yip added.
"By helping vendors to modify their recipes, it is a good example of role modelling for the people attending the event and will encourage them to replicate the food at home."
ATEED general manager destination Steve Armitage said people attending this year's festival would still be able to enjoy a wide range of authentic Indian cuisine.
"Seven of the 42 food vendors are providing healthier choices on their menus alongside their regular traditional festival food favourites, as part of the ADHB and ATEED Healthy Food Initiative."
"This is a good opportunity for Aucklanders to have a choice while they experience and celebrate different cultural foods and drinks."
Armitage said ATEED's major cultural festivals presented many opportunities to influence norms and expectations about healthier food and drink.
An approximate total of 292,000 people attend the Diwali, Lantern, Tāmaki Herenga Waka, and Pasifika festivals each year, and the council sees these events as key opportunities for Aucklanders to experience and celebrate different cultural foods and drinks.
Festival producer Leilana Meredith said the event would showcase hundreds of performers presenting music and dance in styles and traditions from all over India.
"That's just the entertainment. We have people who return every year for their favourite Diwali treats from our food stalls and who time their festival visits around lunch and dinner," Meredith said.
"Auckland Diwali is always an unforgettable experience. It has a wonderful atmosphere one of excitement and celebration."
In the lead-up to the festival, the Auckland Harbour Bridge will be lit with colours and patterns from 7pm tomorrow, and rangoli patterns and Diwali-themed activities will entertain visitors in the central city on Friday.
International performers this year include the Kalehri Art and Culture Academy, which will present a range of dance styles including bhangra, gidha, jindua and jhumar.
The festival proper begins at midday on Saturday and closes at 9pm on Sunday with a fireworks display.