In our household, Deepavali arrives when my mother soaks rice and red chillies for murukku. This is a yearly tradition in which mother makes a mountain of the snack that lasts us a minimum of 10 days after the festivities. The process is labourious and several extra hands are needed because of the sheer quantity. Every year, when she stands in front of the stove, sweating it out over two iron woks filled with oil, she swears she will make lesser the next year. But invariably, the usual quantity persists: two kilograms of idli rice and one kilogram of roasted gram.
How else would she be able to hold on to the old-world practice of sharing food with the neighbourhood? “What’s a festival when you share store-bought stuff?” she would ask, even as neighbours would drop by with sweet boxes in glitter wrap.
Murukku-making takes up half the day and the entire household prepares for the big day. Mother soaks the rice before her morning tea, adding four or five dried red chillies in a separate bowl.
Lunch is a simple affair on murukku day since none of us wants to waste our energies on cooking. After lunch, the process begins. Familiar sounds fill the household: the steady hum of the grinder, followed by the whirr of the mixer.
She first introduces the soaked chillies with a handful of rice; once they are ground to a paste, she adds the rest. To the creamy white dough, she adds powdered roasted gram (pottukadalai). “The batter’s consistency is everything,” she says. “It shouldn’t be too thick, neither runny.” This dough is further embellished for flavour with cumin seeds, asafoetida powder, salt, and dollops of butter. When it comes together, the dough smells delicious; it is buttery, light and even nutty from the roasted gram.
To me, this is the smell of Deepavali. It evokes the rush of excitement of days filled with sweets, mutton curry, new clothes and firecrackers.
Then comes the crucial component: her almost 40-year-old murukku press made of rosewood. Every time the deep-brown contraption is brought out, she brags about how her mother made an experienced carpenter from Karaikudi customise it when she got married. It continues to be sturdy despite being weathered. Next, she spreads an old white dhoti on the kitchen counter: the canvas on which the murukku will be pressed.
The process of pressing the dough to form a squiggly circle and frying it, requires skill. My mother heats gingelly oil in two open-mouthed iron woks and gets to work.. She squeezes dollops of the dough into the opening of the wooden press, closes it, and presses it gently with both hands, tracing a small circle on the cloth. The rest of us do not even try. She repeats this until the dough runs out, achieving three concentric circles with only one dollop of batter.
After flipping the framework of the murukku on the back of her sturdy steel ladle, mother casually drops them into hot oil. Once the sizzling dies down, she takes them out and arranges them in a steel drum lined with newspaper.
The drum usually takes around four hours to fill and by this time, my brother and I down a dozen murukku each. With stomachs full of this fried snack, we would usually skip dinner that day and for the next few days murukku would be the accompaniment for everything: rice, biryani, and even idli-sambar.
Deepavali day would come and go and the drum’s resources would begin to deplete. The last handful of the murukku would always be the tastiest; the crumbs lying at the bottom would taste even better.
This year, I plan to make the snack myself and have fervently taken notes from mother. Am I nervous? Yes, but what’s Deepavali without a few burnt murukkus?