Deepavali Delights

20 Oct

A little idli snowperson (idli-person)?

Last Saturday, I went back to Bayan Indah, my favorite cooking school/B&B in the kampung, for their Deepavali Highlights class. Sure, it’s easier just to go down to the mamak, but I thought it would behoove me to learn how to get my hands (and mouth) on delicacies like idli and th(d)osai without calling up for takeaway. And who better to learn from than a Brahmin chef, who also happens to be the mother-in-law of one of my fellow book clubbers?

The menu for this class: lamb shank varuval (a dry curry, usually made with goat), sambar (a soupy lentil curry), two kinds of rassam (sort of an Indian hot-and-sour soup), rice pilaf, coconut and coriander chutneys, two sweets, murukku, vadai (which I had been calling “onion donuts” until now), and, most intriguing to me, idli and thosai. And we were given a sari-tying demo by Rakesh Nair, sari-tier to the  (Bollywood) stars. Phew! No wonder we were there for five hours.

Rakesh setting a world record by tying a sari in under a minute

First, a little culinary background. While northern Indian cuisine dominates the landscape in the West – creamy, rich dishes like murgh makhani (a.k.a. butter chicken) and palak paneer – most of the Indian you’ll find in Malaysian is southern in origin, as most of the Indians who settled in Malaysia and Singapore are Tamil or Sri Lankan. Southern Indian food (in my limited experience) is spicier and tangier, without the soothing inclusion of dairy products. It’s still plenty rich, though, with liberal use of coconut milk and ghee. Another major difference is that while the northern Indian meal is typically accompanied by naan, a wheat bread, the non-wheat growing south has rice-based sides like thosai (dosai), sort of a rice-flour crepe, and idli, little steamed rice cakes.

Idli and thosai are like pancakes and crepes in that they’re made from the same batter, just in different consistencies. Making the batter is the most challenging part. Not only do you need to track down two different kinds of rice and a special variety of lentil, but also soak each grain for different lengths of time, grind them separately, and then leave the batter to culture. Idli/thosai batter is the sourdough of Asian food; the leavening is provided by the fermentation of the rice/lentil mixture. And like sourdough, it’s finicky; Rohani admitted that she’d had trouble with her first batch, which took too long to ferment. In the class, we got to use pre-fermented batter, so I’ll have to experiment at home to see just how difficult it is. Cooking is less cumbersome, at least for the idli; just butter up your idli mold (you’ve got one of those sitting around the house, right?) and steam away. Thosai, on the other hand, are like crepes, just not as easy to flip, because the batter is way stickier, and the thosai way thinner. You know how the first pancake never turns out? With thosai, it’s more like the first three or four. I have a newfound respect for the skill of the guys at the mamak.

Clockwise from upper left: my book club friend, Li-Hsian, and her m-i-l/guest chef, Puan Sri Vijayalakshmi Rama Iyer, steam the idli; idli on a plate; thosai cooking on the griddle

Idli, though, are something I’d try at home, because the ones the aforementioned Brahmin chef (Puan Sri Vijayalakshmi Rama Iyer) were like magical tangy pillows. I blurted out, “These are the best idli I’ve ever had! Even better than in India!” and she just looked at me like, well, of course they are.

Clockwise from top left: Frying the vadai; a plate of fresh "onion donuts"; murukku

Then there were the deep-fried treats: the vadai and murukku. As a Malaysian Indian girl told me, “It’s not Deepavali if there’s no murukku.”  I talked about murukku at length in last year’s Deepavali post, but I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about vadai. Meg and I discovered these on a trip to Penang. They’re basically like onion donuts made with chickpea flour, and yes, they are as delicious as you would imagine a spicy onion donut to be.

Wrangling the murukku press

The murukku press was a bit difficult to get the hang of. The dough is quite stiff, and the holes in the press are quite small, so you need to apply a lot of force to get the dough to come out evenly – and you need to simultaneously move it around in a circle, so the murukku forms spirals. But you can’t beat freshly fried murukku for deliciousness. I admit that I probably ruined my appetite for lunch by snacking on the rejects.

Bring it on, Deepavali! I’ll get my thosai-flipping skills honed by next week…

The lovely members of my group


3 Responses to “Deepavali Delights”

  1. Li-Hsian October 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Very nice post, Rachell!

  2. Megara November 6, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

    I still dream about those mouth-watering vadai in the hot, hot sun.


  1. SOK: Back in Commission | Straight Out of Kampung - March 1, 2013

    […] by writing the post I meant for the night my water broke, which was Deepavali (Diwali). Last year I took a class at Bayan Indah and decided to put my new knowledge into effect this year, including homemade […]

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