For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about working on a blog project. I’ve finally decided to just take the plunge and see where it takes me. Not sure if I’ll be able to gather enough stories to make it a series. We’ll see where the tide takes us.
This blog project would feature traditional recipes made by home cooks from different walks of life and ethnic/religious groups in Singapore. For now, I’ve decided to call this project – Melting Pot. The aim is to document these traditional recipes before they’re lost and to discover the diversity in Singapore’s food landscape beyond the prescribed narrative.
The first feature for this ‘Melting Pot’ project is a feature on a traditional South Indian snack- Mullu Murukku, made by my maternal uncle – Sivasubramaniam Marimuthu.
Murukku is a fried, savoury snack eaten in many households in India and indian homes across the world. Murukku, which means ‘to twist’ in Tamil, originated in Tamil Nadu, and is mostly made from a combination of rice and urud dal (skinned black gram lentils) flours. In the North, however, channa dal (bengal gram/ chicken pea) flour is added on top of rice and urud dal flours and is affectionately called ‘chakli’ or ‘chakri’. There are several varieties and shapes, which depend on the type of moulds being used, but the more popular ones are shaped like a coil. This recipe and story is about Mullu Murukku ‘Thorny Murukku’, owing to its prickly appearance.
For my Uncle Siva, heating the oil in a large wok and frying these addictive morsels signals the start of festivities in his home. “Traditionally, no Deepavali treats are made before Theemithi, a hindu fire-walking ceremony, as any activities prone to accidents are avoided during any religious observances,” he adds, ” and so the making of murukku marks the end of the religious observance and start of celebrations, usually a week before Deepavalli.”
Uncle Siva has learnt to make murukku from his parents (my maternal grandparents) since he was 13. “When we were living in Joo Chiat Place, Pa and Ma used to grind their own flours at the mill nearby and make murukku. It was a whole day affair and so I used to help them out. That’s how I learnt the ropes,” he shares. The right combination of ground semi-wet, broken rice and urud dal yields the perfect texture for the murukku- crunchy and with a slight melt-in-your-mouth texture. The labour intensive process requires several hands on deck and as a child, I used to be ’employed’ as a murukku courier. I am told that in the beginning, my grandfather used to take charge of mixing and kneading the dough, as he knew the right consistency and texture. Soon after, Uncle Siva took over his role and made the dough and shaped the murukku with the press. My sister and I used to pass the murukku to our grandmother who then fried them. The rest of the family was tasked to cool and pack all 500 to 600 of them into tins.
Much has changed since the times we made murukku in my grandparents’ home 30 over years ago. The closure of most mills in Singapore, the unavailability of ingredients and the high cost of grinding the flours has required Uncle Siva to turn to ground flour premixes from Malaysia, mostly Baba, Lingams or Alagappas brands. Though he has no control over the flours’ ratios, he continues to add several spices and unsalted butter to his mixes and he enthused that these make his murukku special and as close to the way as it used to taste in the past. In fact, almost all brands of murukku sold outside have cut down on the whole spices added due to cost-cutting measures. Uncle Siva’s murukku has a unique savouriness and nuanced peppery and earthy notes from the black pepper and cumin, which many of his colleagues and friends have noted. Over years, he has experimented with several combinations and proportions of spices and the right amount of butter that results in the right texture. “In the past,” he adds ” we used to add only first and second extract coconut milk instead of water but for health reasons and because of the quick expiration of coconut milk murukkus, we only use water now.”
To make his murukku, Uncle Siva begins by toasting and grinding each spice separately. Cumin, ajwain (bishop’s weed/carom) seeds, black peppercorn and asafoetida are lightly toasted in a dry, hot pan till fragrant. The black peppercorns are coarsely ground while part of the cumin seeds are ground. He explains that when all the cumin seeds were kept whole, he found many of the seeds in the residual oil. Grinding a portion of the cumin seeds prevents that.
Also, he prefers the block asafoetida to the powdered ones as it has a much stronger flavour, a key component in the flavour of murukkus. To add more texture, flavour and colour, he also adds black and white sesame seeds, as suggested by my grandmother years ago – a distinct variation from the original recipe my grandfather knew from his youth in Thanjavur, South India. The flecks of black and white sesame seeds make the golden coils more attractive.
All the spices, flavourings and fine salt are added to the premix flours together with room temperature unsalted butter into a large container. The butter is pressed into the flour, much like you would for flaky pie crusts. Then water is added in parts until the mixture resembles large course crumbs. The sticky dough is then kneaded until it forms a ball and there is no mixture left on the sides of the container. The dough will be soft and pliable. At this stage, the dough should not be kneaded anymore as this would result in very hard murukkus. As with most traditional recipes, the amount and proportions of ingredients to be added and the technique of making a perfect murukku dough depends on the maker’s kai pakkuvam (deftness of hand) and mood as the older generation still believes that the disposition of the maker will affect the outcome of the food.
In demonstrating his kai pakkuvam, Uncle Siva quickly sets out to fill the murukku press to the brim as he explains that the dough should not be left for long or it’ll dry out. Placing a damp tea towel over the dough usually helps but because there are three of us in his Hougang home kitchen that day, that wasn’t necessary.
The brass murukku press and mould he is using- Magizham Poo Achi, is over 30 years old but before that he used to use the old-school wooden and metallic presses. The more traditional murukku press is a handheld instrument which consists of two parts – the top, a cylindrical block, and the bottom, a hollowed out part with small holes. He found these traditional devices really time-consuming as each batch only made a few murukkus and they required a lot of strength. He has since opted for a brass murukku press with a swivel handle which can churn out about 15 murukkus in a batch and is much easier to work with.
To make perfect coils of murukku, it requires precision, patience and very good hand-eye coordination. Each one is piped onto a separate sheet of non-stick paper, which makes their transfer into the hot oil much easier.
The freshly piped murukkus are fried in hot oil until they sound hollow when tapped and the oil stops spluttering violently. If the proportion of flours is incorrect, the murukkus take too long to cook and become oily as a result. Like doughnuts, the ‘hole’ in the middle and the tiny gap between each strand allow for the murukku to be cooked uniformly and thoroughly. Immediately after, the crisp murukkus are drained in a mesh colander before being transferred to cool on kitchen paper.
- 1.5 kg murukku premix
- about 4-6 tablespoons of cumin seeds, toasted
- about 4-6 tablespoons of black and white sesame seeds
- 3/4 tablespoon ajwain seeds (bishop’s weed/ carom) , toasted
- 3-4 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely ground
- block asafoetida, cut into cubes, fried then ground, about 1.5 teaspoons
- salt (to taste) , about 2-3 teaspoons (only if premix has no salt added)
- 250g unsalted butter, room temperature
- Toast all spices separately till fragrant.
- Finely grind about 1/2 of the toasted cumin.
- Coarsely grind the toasted, black peppercorns.
- In a large container, add whole and ground spices,sesame seeds, ground asafoetida and salt into premix murukku flour. Mix until spices are evenly distributed.
- Add room temperature butter and press butter into flour with fingertips.
- Add water little at a time until mixture resembles large crumbs.
- Knead until mixture forms a smooth and soft dough. Add water as needed.
- In a large wok, heat about 2 litres of vegetable/peanut oil until hot, about 365°F/180°C.
- Scoop a handful of dough and press into murukku press until filled to the brim.
- Pipe murukku onto non stick, food grade paper.
- Carefully slide piped murukku into hot oil.
- Fry till cooked and golden, about 2 minutes.
- Drain immediately in colander.
- Cool completely on kitchen paper before storing in an airtight container.
Uncle Siva quips, while piping, about a time when he abandoned making any because the mixture just wasn’t right. It was when his family was still living in Joo Chiat and when my grandmother forgot to add the ground urud dal. “It just refused to come out right- crumbled and broke each time I tried to pipe it,” he said as he laughed at his and his family’s folly. “Your mum and Thillaiyambalam Mama (uncle in Tamil) took over the reins and tried to salvage it. It was still tasty but it just wasn’t what we were used to.”
Though there are several sweet treats and snacks made for the festival of lights, murukku remains a firm favourite among most households, including mine. Though the time-honoured tradition of making it completely from scratch is impossible, especially in Singapore, the custom of making murukkus at home for each Deepavalli, still satisfies my Uncle Siva. It is clear that he takes a lot of pride in preserving and continuing the tradition of making these treats for his family and friends each year and plans on starting a small- scale venture sometime in the near future.
Anyone who makes murukkus will tell you that it is very laborious. Yet, contradictorily, they religiously make murukku every year as it isn’t Deepavali until you have some murukku. I have much to be grateful for as Uncle Siva has graciously shared his recipe, and tips and taught me how to make murukku the way it has been made for years in my family. I hope to continue with this tradition for its nostalgic and crunch value.
What are some of your festive family traditions? Do share them in the comments.
If you’re in Singapore, have a family recipe / food tradition or know of someone with one, please do not hesitate to contact me here or email me at cupcakesncurries at gmail dot com