In her tidy home kitchen in Petaling Jaya, 81-year-old Sushila Nadarajah reigns supreme. Even though she now walks with the aid of a walking stick, her energy and enthusiasm for churning out heritage Deepavali meals remains intact.
“When I was younger, my husband used to invite more than 100 people to the house for Deepavali and we used to cook at least 5kg of prawns and over 20 chickens. We even had three rice cookers going at the same time – it was like a catering company!
“Now that I’m older, all my children have asked me to stop cooking for Deepavali. But I cannot! Because when I go to sleep, I will think about how much food I used to cook before. And I’ll think ‘Why can’t I do it now?’ So for my own peace of mind, I must cook something,” she says, smiling cheekily.
A bubbly, chatty lady with a huge, warm smile, Sushila learnt how to cook from her mother when she was a young girl. Interestingly, her mother learnt how to cook from her mother-in-law who was a Chetti (Indian Peranakan) from Melaka.
“When she got married, my mother didn’t know how to cook anything because she came from a very rich family – she was the granddaughter of Thamboosamy Pillay, who discovered Batu Caves and was one of the founders of Victoria Institution. So her family had cooks and she didn’t go into the kitchen at all. But when she got married to my father, my grandmother (father’s mother) was a very nice, humble lady who took the trouble to teach my mother all her recipes,” she adds.
By the time Sushila and her sister were old enough to learn from their mother, she had become an acclaimed cook and was eager to pass the Chetti-influenced recipes she had learnt from her mother-in-law to her children.
“Every day when my mother cooked, we had to stand beside her and she would explain what she was doing. Two or three weeks after that, she would say, ‘Go and make the same thing,’” says Sushila.
To this day, Chetti recipes still have a strong hold on Sushila and form the backbone of her Deepavali staples.
Like her grandmother’s famed chicken vindaloo, a fiery concoction laced with spices that yields exquisite, full-bodied flavours.
“My grandmother and mother used to cook this curry. You have to cook it slowly until you attain the right colour. It takes some time to get it right, but you will get a nice taste,” she says humbly.
Sushila’s vindaloo is one of the hot ticket items at her annual Deepavali gathering where two of her four children (another two live overseas) and their families as well as up to 10 nephews and nieces will pop by for her famed food.
“There will be about 15 of us for Deepavali. When my nephews enter the house, they will ask, ‘Atthai, got vindaloo or not?’ says Sushila, adding that sometimes she thinks they love her food more than her!
Sushila’s grandmother’s acar also makes an appearance on the Deepavali table and features fresh, crispy vegetables coated in a vinegary dressing.
“My grandmother made everything from scratch and I do it that way too. My daughter-in-law wanted to learn how to make it but she came and saw how I did it and was like, ‘Oh, so much of work!’,” says Sushila, laughing.
Even after Deepavali is over, Sushila doesn’t rest; instead two or three days after the festival, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work again, making her mother’s famed vegetarian mee rebus – a decadent, sumptuous meal so fabulously good, you won’t be able to think about anything else long after the meal is over.
As she doesn’t want the family recipes to die out, Sushila has taught them all to her daughters, daughters-in-law and anyone else who wants to learn from her.
But she herself remains the main person who cooks for Deepavali every year even though she is getting on in years now and has a back condition that limits her mobility.
“But I don’t give up, because Deepavali is about celebrating with the family in the house. And I love cooking and having family and friends come over every year to eat the food – in my house, everyone is always welcome,” she says, beaming.
For chilli paste
1 cup dried chilies
For grinding together into a paste
1/2 tea cup shallots
1/2 tea cup ginger
1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 clove garlic
2 tsp whole black pepper
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 big rose onion, sliced
2 tbsp tomato puree paste
1 whole chicken, skinless, cut into pieces, wash with saffron and strain the water
salt to taste
1 cup water
sugar to taste
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp thick soya sauce
chicken cube to taste
1 tbsp ghee/butter to taste
fried onions, for garnishing
Blanch dried chillies. Drain water and put chillies in blender with 1/3 cup of water and blend finely.
Grind ingredients for grinding together and set aside.
Heat oil in a pan. When the oil is hot, add sliced onions and fry till golden brown. Add chilli paste and ground paste and fry until fragrant, if too dry you may add some oil. Stir well for 10 minutes.
Add tomato puree, chicken pieces, salt and water. Cover with lid and cook for 45 minutes. In between, open lid and stir the chicken, making sure the paste is incorporated well.
Add sugar, vinegar, thick soya sauce, chicken cube and ghee and cook for another 5 minutes until fragrant. Sprinkle with some water and stir well until chicken vindaloo looks moist and shining. Remove from heat, sprinkle with fried onions and serve hot with rice or chapati.
For grinding (grind finely with a little water)
7 red chillies
2 tbsp sliced galangal (lengkuas)
1 tbsp fresh turmeric
For the acar
4 cucumbers, julienned and cut into 4cm lengths
2 carrots, julienned and cut into 4cm lengths
6 green chillies, cut into 3.8cm lengths3 cups shallots
1/2 cup sliced garlic
1 cup of ginger julienned thinly
3 1/2 cups white distilled vinegar
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 tbsp salt to taste
4 tsp sugar
3 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
Grind ingredients for grinding and set aside. Soak cucumber, carrots, green chilies, shallots, garlic and ginger with 1 ½ cups vinegar for 30 minutes. Keep mixing every few minutes.
After 30 minutes, extract the liquid using a muslin cloth.
Add oil to the wok and fry the ground ingredients until a layer of oil emerges. Pour the remaining 2 cups of vinegar. Add salt and sugar to taste and adjust seasoning until you reach your preferred balance of sour, sweet, savoury and spicy. Bring the mixture to a boil.
Add the vegetables and mix for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer acar into a dry glass bowl. Garnish with roasted sesame seeds and sugar. Do not mix at this point.
Cover the bowl. Use a big dishcloth to tie the bowl and leave to marinate overnight. The next day, using a dry spoon, stir the acar and cover and leave for 5 hours or more. Store in a clean, dry container in the refrigerator. Best eaten after one day when the flavours have developed more. Can be refrigerated for up to a week.
VEGETARIAN MEE REBUS
For vegetable fritters (cucur)
1 cup plain flour
1 cup water
1/2 tsp saffron powder
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
salt to taste
1/2 a carrot, grated
handful of bean sprouts
handful of coriander leaves
handful of green onion leaves
oil, for frying
For blending together
½ cup dried chillies, blanched, excess water removed and blended with 1/3 cup water to a fine paste
For blending into a paste
1/2 cup shallots
2 stalks lemongrass
3.8cm galangal (lengkuas)
3.8cm fresh turmeric
1 clove garlic
2 fresh chillies
For cooking together
3 tbsp oil
2 ripe large tomatoes, diced
1 1/2 tbsp meat curry powder
1/3 cup tamarind mixed into 1 1/2 cup water
3/4 cup roasted coarsely ground peanuts
2 cups boiled, well mashed orange sweet potato
1 small vegetable cube
2 1/2 cups water
salt to taste
2 tbsp gula Melaka syrup
500g fresh yellow noodles, blanched
200g bean sprouts, blanched
4 pieces hard bean curd ,fried and cut into cubes
1/2 cup chopped spring onions
2 cucumber, cut in thin strips, skin intact
1/2 cup fried onions
2 fresh red chillies, sliced
1 fresh green chilli, sliced
4 to 5 key lime (limau kasturi)
vegetable fritters (cucur)
A few boiled eggs
To make the fritters
Mix all the ingredients for the vegetable fritters together and form a very thick batter. Heat oil, drop in 2 tbsp of the batter, and fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on several layers of absorbent kitchen paper. When cool, cut into pieces.
Heat oil in pot. Fry the blended pastes and tomatoes till fragrant. Add in the curry powder and continue frying over low heat. Wait until tomatoes become like puree.
Add in the tamarind water and after 3 – 4 minutes, put in peanuts. Stir well over low heat till the oil rises to the surface. Add the mashed sweet potato and vegetable cube and stir well until it is well mixed.
Add the water, salt, gula Melaka syrup and stir well. Taste the resulting gravy. You can add more tamarind water, sugar and salt to taste at this stage. Simmer the gravy over low heat until the oil surfaces. Remove from the heat.
Blanch the beansprouts and yellow noodles just before serving and add a little butter to prevent stickiness. In a bowl , put in the beansprouts and mee. Pour in enough gravy to coat the noodles well and garnish with the rest of the ingredients.