THE months of March and April are significant for many Indian communities, namely the Tamils, Telugus and Malayalees who will celebrate their respective new year.
StarMetro takes a look at the festivals — Puthanda, Ugadhi and Vishu — and the gastronomical spread from the communities during the celebrations.
Puthanda (April 14)
The Tamil New Year, known as Varisha Piruppu or Puthandu (new year) marks the first day of the first month – Chittirai – in the Tamil calendar.
With greetings of puthandu valthukal (happy new year) most Tamils visit their elders and relatives, and savour vegetarian meals on the day.
For the Tamil people, Puthandu carries great significance and is observed with prayers throughout the day.
The celebration is a modest and sweet affair as many anticipate sweet returns throughout the year.
They take the extra effort to clean the house, adorn new clothes and have an elaborate prayer with family before settling for the sumptuous vegetarian meal.
The highlight of the new year celebration is, however, the reading of the panjangam (Tamil almanac), said Malaysia Hindu Sangam vice-president Dr Rupa Saminathan.
She explained that the temples would read out the panjangam according to the various zodiacs to give a general forecast to individuals on what to expect for the new year.
“The reading gives an insight on how the year would be like for each individual.
“Besides that, the celebration gives a reason for families and friends to unite in the spirit of love. The food is an added bonus.
“The dishes served are like any other day but the spread consists of a variety of tastes like sweet, salty, sour and bitter, symbolising the many tastes of life,” she said, adding that the number of dishes served are usually in odd numbers.
In Little India, Brickfields’ local food marts like Asokan Store and Modern Store are all ready to sell a variety of fresh vegetables and dried food items for the festival.
Asokan Store clerk Suresh Rebba said among the popular vegetables from India sought after during Puthandu were the kothavarengekka and kovaikaai.
The vegetables are hard to come by but the shops pre-order them for the new year.
“Most of our customers want a variety and the Indian vegetables are in demand,” he added.
Rupa said these vegetables were not easily available here and many did not know how to cook them.
The suppliers may have imported them to boost sales during this festive period.
The kovaikaai can be made into a perattal (dry curry) or tuvaiyal (chutney), while the kothavarengekka can be added into sambar (dhal curry) or made as koottu (cooked in dhal).
“However, a pumpkin dish is a must, as it is a symbol of prosperity.
“Most importantly, sweets are offered before the meal as appetisers and after the meal as desserts in hopes that all endeavours that year starts and ends on a sweet note,” she said.
The Ceylonese, also known as Jaffna Tamils, also start off their new year with a sweet dish.
Malaysian Ceylonese Congress secretary-general G. Rasamalar said the sweet dish here would normally be ponggal made of lentils, rice, raisins, milk, jaggery and ghee.
“The main meal will include idiyappam (string hoppers) and puttu (steamed ground rice with coconut).
“Typical Jaffna style, is to eat idiyappam with sodhi (a coconut-based light gravy) or with grated coconut and brown sugar.
“Puttu is taken with bananas or kuttu sambal, which is a pounded component of coconut, onions, chilli and spices.
“A more elaborate affair will be paruppu curry made from roasted and pounded green gram, katrikai or vallaka palkari (brinjal and unriped bananas cooked in grated coconut and mashed) pumpkin or tapioca curry, kirai kadaiyal (mashed spinach), inji sambal (pounded ginger flavoured with coconut, onion, chilli and lime), vendhaya kolumbu (pure chilli powder based gravy with onions), pavakai kootu (bitter guard in dhal), and dry-fried jackfruit with sodhi,” she said.
Rasamalar said snacks such as murukku, paitha paniyaram (spiced green gram), nei urundai (ghee balls), and chippy (bite-size crispy snack) are prepared as early as two weeks before the celebration.
“The Ceylonese give more prominence to the new year compared to Deepavali, but many of our practices have been localised to suit the norm here,” she said.
This sweet affair is definitely a peak period for those in the Indian sweet business.
Jesal Sweet House director Amar Singh said the demand for their sweets doubles during this festive period.
“Although we have a wide selection, the preferred sweets are laddu, jilebi, halva and palkova.
“The crowd will start buying these sweets two days before the new year because it is best consumed within five days,” he said.
Ugadhi (March 31)
The Telegu New Year dubbed Ugadhi falls in the month of Charitha and is undoubtedly one of the most awaited celebration for the community.
Like so many other Asian cultures, food takes centre stage in the Telegu celebration and begins with the auspicious Ugadhi Pachadi.
The Ugadhi Pachadi is made up of six tastes — neem flower (bitter), raw mango (tangy), tamarind juice (sour), green chilli (heat), jaggery and ripe banana pieces (sweet) and a pinch of salt.
All six are synonymous with the ups and downs of life and symbolises a man’s journey throughout the year.
After an oil bath, prayers and blessings from the elders, the lady of the house distributes the pachadi among family members and later to visitors.
“The pachadi reminds us that we should take every experience, bitter or sweet, in our stride.
“We believe that the taste that is most prominent for each person that day, is an indication of the kind of year they will experience,” said Telegu Association of Malaysia women chief Dhanalaxmi Ramanah.
Dhanalaxmi said the community enjoys their sweets and often have a variety on the table during the festival.
Among the many are burelu (black dhall filled with gram dhall), ponganalu (rice flour, cardamom and ginger powder), theepugaralu, chinnapakalu, bobatlu and kajalu.
Since none of these can be bought from the store, womenfolk have to make everything from scratch at home.
Dhanalaxmi enlists the help of her daughters each year to get the task done.
Her youngest daughter Vandhana Krishna, 25, said she was eager to learn the art of making her favourite Andhra dishes from her mum.
“I know the ingredients that goes into each dish but I have not got the measurements right.
“However, I will learn it soon because it is important to pass on the tradition,” she said.
Vishu (April 15)
The Malayalees also observe their own New Year called Vishu with things and food that signify a prosperous year ahead.
Malayalees begin the day with the Vishu Kanni, an altar set up with the a picture of Lord Krishna, gold, money, new clothes and the konnam flower .
The konnam flower grows on trees planted along highways and need to be picked by hand.
Malaysian Hindu Malayalee Parishad president Dr Raghavan Nambiar said he picks the flowers himself.
“It is found near the highways and grows in abundance at this time of the year. The flower is essential for the Vishu Kanni but unfortunately it is not sold by Indian florists,” added Nambiar.
In fact, there are several vegetables that are needed for the 16-dish vegetarian spread for Vishu Sadhya (meal) but is hard to source.
One of it is the elephant yam known as Chena, a vegetable that can only be found occassionally at the stores in Brickfields and Klang.
Brickfield’s Modern Store worker J. Annadas said they order a variety of fruits to cater to the Malayalees and Telegus who often use mangoes in their cooking.
Chena is great in the traditional kalan (scraped coconuts and yogurt), or kootu curry (grated coconut curry), both a must-have on Vishu.
Another one is koorka or Chinese potato that is great as a stir fried vegetable.
“We only use vegetables that can be used ripe or unriped in the dishes. The dishes usually come in pairs to balance the flavours,” he added.
He said the most common pairs are Kalan and Olan, Elsheri and Pulisheri as well as the desserts Velatha Payasam (white sugar) and Karathu Payasam (Brown sugar).