In her delightfully quaint, old-fashioned home kitchen in Petaling Jaya, 76-year-old Devi Murugappan is busy frying up a batch of murukku.
She works fast and efficiently – extracting perfect murukku spirals using her mother's 50-year-old wooden murukku mould (one of two that she inherited). Each spiral is pressed out over the back of a soft sieve, which she quickly tips into hot oil. Then she repeats the process over and over like a well-oiled machine, never breaking a sweat and never losing her warm, enthusiastic smile.
“I work alone so I have to be very fast, because the murukku cooks so quickly – each one only takes a few minutes,” says the cheerful Devi who churns out nearly two kg of muruku every year for Deepavali, to be distributed to various family members.
Devi is one of very few people who still prepares muruku the traditional way – she still washes and dries her rice and lentils in the hot sun and sends these raw ingredients to the Narayana Moorthy Flour Mill in Bangsar to be ground into fine flours.
“I've never tried commercial rice flour because I'm so used to doing this. Nowadays, I just take a book to the flour mill and read while I wait for the flour to be ground – sometimes it only takes 30 minutes and other times, I have to wait an hour or two,” says Devi, who also makes her own fish curry powder, meat curry powder, chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder and cumin powder.
Although Devi is now a seasoned pro at making muruku, she didn't actually start doing it herself properly until she was married and had to make it for her own family.
“Before I got married, my sisters and I only used to help my mother when she made muruku for Deepavali. So I learnt how to make it properly after I got married – that's when I got her recipe,” says Devi who has stuck with the same heirloom recipe ever since.
She says the secret to getting the dough just right is to add the right amount of water, which in turn will yield a thick, malleable consistency.
“The dough should be a bit thick and just nice lah, you don't measure the water, you put little by little until it feels right,” she says.
Because Devi's muruku has earned such rave reviews from family and friends, at one point, at the behest of her family, Devi even set up a small business selling her muruku and ladoos for weddings and other events, making up to 500 pieces at a time!
These days, Devi has phased out the business side of her muruku-making and continues to do it purely out of love for her family.
Every year like clockwork, she starts frying up her muruku about two weeks before Deepavali alongside other treats like laddoo and ney urundai (ghee balls).
“You can't keep the muruku for too long because the taste won't be nice, so two weeks before Deepavali is just right,” she says.
And her muruku is certainly delightful – crunchy and spice-laden with a lovely rich buttery feel that coats the tongue and lingers in the memory.
Devi says she knows she is a rare breed, one of very few people who still bother to get their flour ground at the flour mill instead of opting for the quicker, more accessible store-bought options.
“It is tastier when you make it from scratch. I know very few people do this now, my aunty in Klang who's 80 plus still does it too – but otherwise, I don't really know anyone else who does it,” she says.
Still, Devi says she will continue making her muruku from scratch for as long as she is able to.
“I'm 76, of course I am getting aches here, there and everywhere. But if I sit down and do nothing, I will be thinking about all that – if I fry muruku or do other work, I forget about it. So I think I'll be making muruku for as long as I am fit and able,” she says smiling.
For pounding together coarsely
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp omam (carom seeds)
For forming into dough
600g rice flour
200g urad dhal flour
3tsp white sesame seeds
3tsp (level) salt
boiling water, as required
On a large metal pan, mix pounded cumin and omam, rice flour, urad dhal flour, butter, sesame seeds, salt together. Boil about 1 litre water (this is just a rough amount), and add about half of the water little by little into mixture and mix with a wooden spoon.
Once the dough is cooler, use hands to knead the dough together, adding water as required until the dough is thick but not wet and sticky.
Shape the dough into little cylinders (to fit into the muruku mould). Put the cylinder-shaped dough into the muruku mould and extract, shaping into swirls.
On medium heat, heat enough oil for deep-frying in a large kuali and deep-fry each muruku for a few minutes until lightly golden. Remove from the heat, leave to cool. Once cooled, pack in a Tupperware lined with absorbent kitchen paper to remove excess oil.
The next day, pack muruku in air-tight canisters.