Deepavali, or Diwali, is the Festival of Lights which symbolises the "victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance" and it is celebrated by the Hindus. Having lived in Malaysia for most of my life, I am nothing but intrigued by the diverse cultures we offer here. And as we gear towards Deepavali, I couldn’t help but think of all the colourful Indian sweets and snacks that I have seen at stalls and restaurants but have not yet been able to try. Personally (with a hint of guilt when I say this), I think it’s ironic to not have tried many Indian sweets despite calling myself a proud Malaysian, which is what motivated this article in the first place. Thus, in the spirit of adventures and enhanced cultural understanding, my friends and I took an Indian snacks tour down Little India in Brickfields.
Little India was scattered with stalls that offered a variety of Indian sweets. Just look at the options we were spoiled with! We explored the part of town for a bit before deciding which stalls to buy our sweets from. Given that most stalls offered similar products at similar prices, hygiene (and obviously, the friendliness of the stall-keepers) became the determinant factors of our purchase.
Vishaali, who is our Indian sweets ‘expert’, served as our food tour guide of the day as she introduced the most popular snacks to us. We couldn’t possibly purchase and taste everything so we decided that we would only target the most iconic ones, or at least what we felt curious about.
Before I get cancelled, let me declare that the number-one most iconic Indian snack, murukku, was not part of our tasting list. All of us had literally lived with murukku- the deep-fried savoury snack made of rice flour, dhal flour, and spiced seasoning simply was too common among Malaysians. But seeing how various forms of murukku can be made and served, perhaps we should have a dedicated experience of murukku-making next!
Oh, another item we had deliberately kept out of our tasting list was the Achi Murukku, which is also known as Kuih Bunga Ros or the Bee Hive among other Malaysians, as it is too commonly found especially during Chinese New Year.
We decided to start the day with Pani Puri. Pani translates to ‘water’, while Puri refers to fried dough balls. It is a popular savoury appetiser that comes in the form of crispy, hollow, fried dough balls stuffed with boiled potatoes and chilli bits, served with spicy tangy water and a sprinkle of tiny murukku over the top for extra crunch. We watched attentively as the vendor broke a hole in the fried dough ball before filling it with ingredients like mashed potatoes and chilli bits. The cold broth poured into the holes was made of mint and spices, and it is often regarded as the soul of the dish. As we sent the bite-size Pani Puri into our mouth, tsunamis of flavours broke free! I could taste the mint, the crunch of the dough ball and a hint of spiciness from the chilli bits, which made a rather refreshing combination of tastes I have not experienced before. I totally recommend trying this snack!
As we ventured to see what other stalls offered, we could not help but notice that some stalls have decided to go creative with their Pani Puris by incorporating popular elements and ingredients to the dish. This includes pairing the dough balls with cheese, yoghurt and chocolate sauce. I can totally understand the idea of bringing in yoghurt as it is commonly used in many Indian cuisines. But cheese and chocolate? We decided to try out the versions with cheese and yoghurt, but oh man, we could not be more disappointed. Both cheese and yoghurt overtook the flavours of the original Pani Puri and its tangy mint juice. It was simply a mouthful of savoury cheese/yoghurt nightmare.
Back to traditional Indian sweets, we gave these coconut candies a try. These flaky blocks are made of dry-fried grated coconut flesh, sugar and condensed milk. They are mainly sweet with fragrant flavours of coconuts. In fact, each colour had a slight variation in taste. While I could not quite tell the difference between the green and pink ones, I simply thought one was sweeter than the other. The brown one, on the other hand, was chocolate-flavoured.
Palkovas are soft blocks made of milk and sugar that remind me of White Rabbit milk candies. It is one of the most common and best-selling Indian sweets out there. It comes in forms with rougher or smoother texture- no difference in taste, just how your tongue feels when it rolls the sweet over. I think this might be the least experimental one as the taste and texture were familiar to me. There was a wet, creamy variation which tasted just the same too. We discovered that the stall owner had been operating his business for more than 20 years. Over the years, his secret recipe of mango-flavoured palkovas became another popular item on his catalogue and so we certainly had to give it a try. It came in a bright gold shade, which looked promising, but it tasted just like Sirap Bandung to me, not even close to mangoes. Next, we tried Adhirasam, which is a doughnut-looking snack made of rice flour and cane or brown sugar. It has a rough texture and mainly tasted like brown sugar to me. I am not a big fan and I would consider the taste milder than it looks. I was told that it was used as offerings to Gods in the past and the making process from scratch could take days to weeks! Jilebi looks just like a crystalised murukku- the same signature spiral shape but translucent like a gem. However, unlike the hard, crunchy texture and savoury taste of a murukku, a jilebi is sweet, soft and chewy. We learned that it is made from deep-frying dough of regular flour made into rings, then soaking in sugary rose syrup until it puts on a sweet edible crystal on the outer layer. Personally, I think it is delicious but feels rather unhealthy to eat, however, it remains one of the sweets I will recommend to anyone who has not tried it before.
Bombay Karachi Halwa is yet another popular Indian sweet, and it looks like a block of jelly. Mainly made of cornflour, sugar and water, the jelly is soft and gooey- it melted in our mouths the moment we sent it in. Thanks to the cardamom and ghee added in the making process, the jelly often took up a red, orange colour. Also, the one we tried was not too sweet! Moving on, there’s Laddu, which I consider as balls of wonders. The little balls made from flour, sugar and ghee were not only dense and compact in texture, it locked a sweet, nutty flavour in that would flourish in your mouth. The yellow one did not contain ghee and was considered the original version, it was pleasantly flavoured. The orange one had ghee in it, which massively enhanced its flavours, like adding MSG to Chinese cooking- the flavours and aroma got brought out like potential in a kid just got unleashed. In some versions, dried fruits and nuts are also added to elevate the flavours and fanciness.
Then, we had the chance to try Gulab Jamun, which are cute, round brown balls soaked in syrup. The look of fishballs is clearly deceiving as it was much softer and juicier from the syrup treatment. The making process is interesting too: milk solids get heated slowly until it is a workable dough, followed by rolling, deep frying and soaking in syrup. I didn’t like the sweetness level, it felt like eating and drinking sugar. But still, it is a must-try!
Last but not least, just when I was about to leave Little India, I was offered a Ghee Ball! Yes, it looked unassuming and boring, but please do not underestimate it. The ball broke into flakes and powder when I gave it a squeeze, and every bit carried flavours of spices. I was told that typical ghee balls are made of mung bean flour, sugar, ground cardamom and ghee was added mainly to hold the shape.
Vishaali shared with us that the sweets we tasted were generally less sweet than what could be available out there, especially those sold at temples. It could be for health awareness reasons that vendors started selling less diabetes-inducing products, or just to cater to a wider range of customers who might not necessarily enjoy sugary food. However, those sweeter ones tend to be sold or offered in smaller sizes, which suggests this could just be a ratio problem.
The expedition simply gave me such an amazing food experience of our Indian cultures in the country. I am glad that despite being a picky eater, I was willing to try new things. Having lived in Malaysia for most of my life but not having tasted these very common Indian snacks felt ignorant to me, but now I am happy to feel like I know better. Thus, if you are anything like me, please make use of the upcoming festive season and try as many Indian snacks and sweets as possible! After all, we live in a multicultural community, an enhanced understanding of each others’ cultures could only do more good than harm.
Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.