Evolution is an interesting thing. In many ways, it has yielded technological advances that we now simply cannot live without. But in other situations, it has rendered age-old methods either obsolete or left by the wayside.
The art of making muruku, for example, once involved pounding rice and urad dhal to a fine flour using an ulakkai, an implement that resembled a long pole that was used to stamp the rice at the bottom of a receptacle (ural) - sort of like an extra-large pestle and mortar.
Then in the mid-20th century, flour mills proliferated all over Malaysia and soon many home cooks realised they could give up the back-breaking work of grinding their own flour in lieu of a machinated process that still used fresh ingredients and produced finely ground floor.
That practice of sending grains to the mills has since fallen out of favour as times have changed yet again.
These days, the prevalence of store-bought, ready-made muruku flours means most home cooks can now whip up muruku dough fairly easily and fry up a batch of these crispy treats in a matter of minutes.
But still, some elderly folk have not given up doing things the old-fashioned way, keeping to mid-20th century methods of sending rice and urad dhal that have been washed and dried under the sun to the flour mills to make fresh raw flours.
And though the work involved is far more laborious, there is a method to this madness: the fresh flours elicit light, buttery, utterly perfect home-spun murukus that are absolutely delicious.
The old-fashioned way
On a hot Tuesday afternoon two weeks before Deepavali, 94-year-old Mariammah Muthu smooths wet rice and lentils on a large flat metal tray.
Satisfied that everything is in order, she goes outside to place it carefully under the blistering afternoon sun where it will dry in a few hours.
Then she assumes her position on a chair just inside the house, where she has a clear view of the rice and lentils. If a bird even looks in the direction of the raw ingredients, she is out of the house, walking as quickly as her thin, frail body will take her as she swats the pesky creature away with repeated “Shoo, shoo” motions.
“There is no set timing for how long it takes to dry the rice and lentils, I keep going out to test it with my fingers – if it feels completely dry to me, it is done. And I've learnt over the years that it is very important that the ingredients are completely dry, otherwise the flour won't turn out well,” says Mariammah in Tamil, a huge smile adorning her friendly, wrinkle-studded face.
Remarkably, this is only Step One in Mariammah's long-standing ritual of making muruku from scratch – a practice she has kept going for the past 74 years since she started making murukku as a young 20-year-old when she inherited her mother's muruku recipe.
Although no one would fault her for taking the easy route and just buying ready-made muruku flour, she persists in the old-fashioned way of doing things.
Step Two involves taking the dry rice and urad dhal to the Sri Ambika Flour Mill in Klang where Mariammah has been known to stay for hours to ensure the flour is ground to her specification. If she is not able to make it herself, she sends her daughter Saraswathi Muthiah in her stead and the latter too will spend hours ensuring everything is milled to her mother's rigorous standards.
“There is always a lot of people at the mill, and my mother is always worried that the orders will get mixed up – she is very fussy about things being done right. So I wait there and make sure it is done properly,” says Saraswathi, who learnt to make muruku from her mother when she was only 10.
At the flour mill, we see Mariammah in action as she bends to inspect the flour, checking to make sure it has been ground very finely.
“It has to be completely fine, like this,” she says taking a handful of the powdery substance and showing it us. The attendant manning the machine cannot help smiling at this – perhaps because he understands just how finicky Mariammah is – she once sent the flour back to the mill three times because she was not satisfied with the results!
After collecting the finished flour, Mariammah heads back home with her daughters and quickly gets to work – in a saree, no less!
Her daughters and a few grandchildren help her set up her work station and soon she is ready to get going. Her hands may be old and knotted, but she is a very strong woman, something that becomes increasingly clear as you watch her work the rice flour, urad dhal flour, coconut milk, butter and spices into a huge blob of dough, her muscles flexing as she uses all the strength in her tiny body to get the dough perfect, stopping only to test everything with her fingers to make sure the consistency and taste is right.
When she is satisfied that the dough has come along nicely, Mariammah shapes the big mound into little cylinders and steps aside and shows us the finished dough.
“The colour has to be white-ish and the texture has to be just right – thick but not too sticky,” she says.
After this, Mariammah's job is done – over the years, she has allowed assorted family members to take over as increasingly, she is unable to stand for too long.
“Deepavali only feels like Deepavali when we are making muruku and all the other pallaharam (sweet treats). That's when everyone in the family gets together, so there is a strong Deepavali spirit,” she says, pointing fondly at her young great-grandchildren who have also come into the kitchen to help.
Once she leaves her post, a granddaughter is tasked with inserting the muruku cylinders into a mould and extracting it over the prepared banana leaf squares the family has painstakingly prepared.
Saraswathi meanwhile takes up position at the stove, where she has filled a large kuali with oil. Soon, she dips the muruku into hot oil and stands watch, tossing and turning it every few minutes and checking to make sure the colour is right.
“I am in charge of the deep-frying. After frying, I make sure it is cooled down and then I arrange it in a tin. So, everybody has a job to do. But of course my mother is the leader,” she says, nodding affectionately at Mariammah.
Soon the muruku is done – crispy, smooth orbs that crackle upon contact with the mouth and have a hedonistically buttery, almost melt-in-the-mouth quality. There is also a distinct home-hewn quality to this muruku – well worth the time and effort Mariammah and her family have spent on making them in the first place.
But before she even has time to rest from her day's labour, Mariammah hurries back to her work station, her eyes gleaming with purpose. She has decided to also make ketti urundai, a sweet ball-shaped treat that rarely gets made in home kitchens today.
Fashioned out of rice and green peas (which Mariammah has also taken to the flour mill to be ground), roasted coconut flesh, cardamom and melted brown sugar, the balls have to be shaped using the heat of the boiling brown sugar. It is tough, literally painful work and some of Mariammah's grandchildren have already excused themselves from the task.
Mariammah and Saraswathi meanwhile are holding the fort like champs – at one point, as boiling melted sugar is ladled over the flour, Mariammah places her hands right over it and says, “Not hot enough lah!”
When she has used up all the dough to make the orundai, she hands one to me and says, “Try it, please.” I do just that and bite down into a warm, molasses-esque ball of nutty goodness that somehow draws to mind childhood treats.
“You like it?” she asks and I nod my head repeatedly.
“You see, it just doesn't taste the same when you use ready-made flour, that's why I keep doing this. It makes me very happy and I like knowing that my hands have made this muruku,” she says, smiling.
2 cups urad dhal, dried under the sun and ground to a fine flour
6 cups rice, dried under the sun and ground to a fine flour
50g sesame seeds or as required
50g cumin, or as required
coconut milk from 1 coconut
½ tsp omam (carom seeds)
salt diluted in some water
250g butter, softened
Mix all the ingredients together with your hands, kneading together until it forms a thick, malleable dough. Form the dough into individual little cyclinders (to fit into murukku mould).
Insert dough cyclinders into mould and express onto banana leaf squares in a circular motion.
In a large kuali, heat up enough oil for deep-frying. When the oil is hot, tip the murukku one by one quickly into the oil and turn repeatedly so it doesn't brown on one side. Remove from the oil once the murukku turns a light brown.
Transfer to a large plate lined with absorbent paper towels. Once it is cooled down, transfer murukku to large metal tins.