Neon hues abound, men string jasmine flowers and gaudy sarees hang on string in every plain sight. Diwali is emerging from its annual hiding and it’s evident that Lebuh Ampang is in celebratory mode.
Diwali is largely viewed as the biggest Hindu festival of the year and of course, food plays a big part of the celebrations. One of the rituals adamantly adhered to by Hindus at this time of year is the consumption of murukku. The fried dough is usually heaped on plates to serve to guests during Diwali open houses or to provide a handy snack when watching Diwali song programs on TV.
During my childhood, my friends and I used to bring tupperware containers of murukku into school and noisily devour them at recess, or if we had a particularly lenient teacher on period, in the classroom as well. We would then rub our oily hands on our pinafores and attempt to tongue out the bits of murukku in our teeth. Good days they were.
The South Indian snack comes in many forms and the most photogenic is the spindly, spirally kind specked with cumin and in some instances, the smallest pinch of chilli powder. Of course, as the flexibility of fried dough allows, murukku comes in many varieties; some are moulded into spicy ribbony shapes (kara murukku), some are made sweet and resemble kuih ros (achu murukku), some have spikes for texture (mullu murukku) and some are hand spun to create intricate dough weavings (kai murukku).
Every year, the Lebuh Ampang stretch is dotted with stalls selling murukku among other Diwali-related adornments like clothes, jasmine flowers, prayer items and the occasional (illegal) firecracker guy. I speak to three murukku vendors to round up some interesting tales revolving around oil, dough and commitment.
The first stall I visit is presided over by a welcoming lady. Janalakshmi, 60, and her husband Maniam have been selling murukku in Lebuh Ampang for over 20 years. Her stall is bigger in size during the Diwali period to accommodate the variety. She doesn’t make the murukku herself but orders from a trusty supplier. Her most popular with customers is the mixture murukku, made up of thin, crispy murukku dough (known as oma podi) that is broken into shards and mixed with salted peanuts, curry leaves and puffed rice.
I ask Janalakshmi if she’s planning to retire anytime soon. She replies in a huff that she will stand behind this exact stall so long as she is physically capable to. Her husband nods lazily in her direction, so to indicate that he too, carries similar principles. Their two sons, both of whom have families of their own, have no plans to take over the business and Janalakshmi and Maniam insist that they don’t wish to “interrupt their children’s lives”.
The second stall I stop at displays an impressive selection of Indian snacks and one very old weighing scale. The lone man behind the stall is initially shy, but then a few Tamil words break the ice and 40 year old Thangam is soon chatting away. Hailing from Chennai, he’s only been in KL for two years and already, his murukkus have sold like hot… murukkus. All the murukkus here are supplied from a household business in Ipoh where the recipes have been passed down from the first generation of Indians during the British colonisation.
Thangam insists that the recipes have not been tweaked, even as the suppliers have increased their operations in Ipoh. The most popular type at this stall is the urunde, ghee and brown sugar balls that are both sweet and grainy. I ask Thangam why he prefers to set up stall here than, say, Brickfields. He replies wryly that bigger businessmen are in control of Brickfields and therefore it becomes something of a political network for Diwali stall operators. He admits that Brickfields is more famously known as KL’s Little India but he is happy to stick to Lebuh Ampang, where he feels the standard operating procedures are “cleaner”.
The next stall I wander off to releases heady scents of spice. I see a lady dropping fists of dough into hissing oil, wiping her brows on her salwar kameez sleeve. The sun burns and frying murukku in the middle of Lebuh Ampang does little to help. At first, the lady thinks I am representing a broadcast media station and tells me that her throat is parched. When I assure her that nothing of our conversation will be recorded, her shoulders drop and her voice relaxes.
Jaindhi’s murukku (the traditional spiral kind) is made on site and freshly packed. This, she says, is her sales tactic and entices passers-by to follow their noses to her stall. Also, when she gets home after a day of selling, she doesn’t find time to fry murukku at home as she juggles between making dinner and tending to her daughters. Frying and packing murukku at the stall seemed an idea most sensible to her.
Only having been running the stall for three years, I ask Jaindhi if it was difficult to obtain a permit from the city council. She tells me that her three years of experience looks good on an application form but that it’s much more difficult for a newbie. Although plot rent is not exuberantly unaffordable, the process may sometimes put people off.
Jaindhi is soon joined by her husband and adolescent daughters who roll by on a rumbling motorcycle. As I ask for a photo, Jaindhi playfully slaps her husband’s wrists so to make sure he doesn’t have his eyes shut when the shutter goes off. Later, I leave the market with my own supplies. My days of school pinafores may be over, but I still plan to spend the next few days munching my way through as many murukku as possible.
Photos by Stacy Liu