Welcome to Homemade, a monthly series from The Republic featuring family recipes and the stories behind them.
As Diwali nears, Ranjani Venkatakrishnan expects to hear the sizzling sound of her mother deep frying murukku, her favorite holiday snack, in their home in Chandler.
Venkatakrishnan, a journalism grad student at Arizona State University, hosts Desi Tunes, an Indian music and talk show on ASU’s Blaze Radio station.
While the radio show started as a way for her to share her favorite Indian music, it’s grown into a culture segment where she’s invited speakers to talk about topics affecting the Indian community. Past guests have includedArizona doctor and Rep. Amish Shah to talk about COVID-19, her parents and friend’s parents to talk about their arranged marriages, and a Kashmir resident to talk about the region’s conflict. An archive the segments are available online on mixcloud.com/desitunes.
Last year she did a segment on Diwali. The holiday, called Deepavali in southern India, which means “row of lights” in Sanskrit, is the most significant holiday of the year for her, she said.
Ranjani Venkatakrishnan’s poses for a portrait while holding a bowl of murukku at the Venkatakrishnan’s home on Nov. 5, 2020 in Chandler, Arizona. Ranjani plans on sharing her mom’s recipe for murukku on the Blaze radio show “Desi Tunes” that she hosts for Diwali. (Photo: Meg Potter/The Republic)
Born in Chennai, a city in southeastern India, Venkatakrishnan moved to the United States when she was less than two years old. She later moved back to India for 5th through 12th grades so her family could help take care of her grandmother, then returned to the U.S. in 2016 to attend ASU.
“I was immersed in my culture during those adolescent years,” Venkatakrishnan said. “Thinking back, it was important for me because it made me appreciate my culture more and feel more connected to my roots.”
Venkatakrishnan described herself as a studious person who’s usually busy commuting to one school activity or another, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has given her more free time at home. For Diwali, she wants to help her mother Anuradha make the Diwali snacks so she can learn and continue this tradition with her own future children.
“I haven’t learned how to make them on my own yet, but I got time,” Venkatakrishnan said.
How one Arizona family celebrates Diwali
Because of India’s and the Indian diaspora’s religious, ethnic and geographical diversity, there are different mythologies associated with Diwali and people celebrate it in different ways.
The Diwali festival takes place usually during Kartika, a month in the Hindu calendar that lines up with parts of October and November. This year it falls on Nov. 14, though like many south Indians, Venkatakrishnan will celebrate the day before on Nov. 13.
Where Venkatakrishnan is from, it’s a one-day celebration, but the festival can span five days in other regions. While Diwali is a Hindu holiday, it’s also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains. Many Muslim and Christian Indians also partake in the non-religious side of festivities, Venkatakrishnan said.
During Diwali people set off firecrackers and fireworks, and illuminate their homes with diya, or oil lamps, to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil.
Venkatakrishnan remembered getting two days off school when she lived in Chennai. The number of fireworks each family got hold of was a point for bragging, and sometimes neighborhoods would collectively pool their firecrackers and fireworks, setting them off all day and into the night, she described.
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In Arizona, her family and family friends typically stock up on fireworks when they go on sale around July 4. While she used to enjoy the explosives when she was younger, she’s not much a fan anymore of the hazardous fumes and smell of smoke clinging to her clothes, she admitted.
On Diwali, Venkatakrishnan will typically wake up early to have a coconut oil bath and her mother will gently massage oil on her head. Because most of her relatives live in India, in Chandler her closest family friends will normally gather to have a feast, sometimes home cooked, sometimes ordered from a restaurant.
Anuradha Venkatakrishnan’s murukku (left), laddu (middle) and ribbon pakoda (right) is pictured at the Venkatakrishnan’s home on Nov. 5, 2020 in Chandler, Arizona. Ranjani, Anuradha’s daughter, plans on sharing her mom’s recipe for murukku on the Blaze radio show “Desi Tunes” that she hosts for Diwali. (Photo: Meg Potter/The Republic)
Before they can eat, her family goes to the puja room, an area of her house where they have pictures and figures of Hindu deities, and offer a portion of the food and sweets to the gods as a sign of gratitude.
Then they continue their daily ritual of leaving a small plate of food outside for the animals — typically crows in India, pigeons here in Arizona — because it’s auspicious to feed animals before yourself, Venkatakrishnan said.
Murukku, a popular south Indian snack
For food, Diwali is probably best known for the many sweets made and shared with family and friends. The sweets exchange is an important part of Diwali and Anuradha usually makes so many that she starts preparing a few days to a week in advance, Venkatakrishnan said.
In India, Anuradha would send her daughter out in the neighborhood with plastic bags of homemade snacks to gift at 20 or so households, and Venkatakrishnan would receive bags in return.
One of her favorites for Diwali is seven cups cake, or burfi, a confection made with milk and ghee that’s more similar to fudge than cake. Badushah, a doughnut-like sweet, also used to be one of her favorites — until one Diwali she ate so many that to this day she can’t stomach another one.
“You eat too much of a good thing and you hate it,” Venkatakrishnan said. “I ate so much of it once that even the thought and smell of it makes me nauseous. I guess I haven’t gotten over it after all these years. Since then, I’ve been more careful about how much I indulge in my favorite sweets.”
But for Venkatakrishnan, her favorite Diwali treat isn’t sweet — it’s savory murukku and “the spicier the better.”
Murukku is a crunchy, sometimes spicy snack made with rice and urad dal flour mixed with water, spices and sometimes seeds, then deep fried. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, such as ribbons and twists, but her favorite kind has a coiled shape about the size of her palm.
There are a lot of variations of murukku depending on the spices and ingredients used, and Venkatakrishnan likes hers with a heavy amount of chili powder. In the past her mother would shoo her from the kitchen when she was making murukku, but this year she’s excited to help out.
“Store-bought snacks and sweets weren’t good as the ones my mother or grandmother made,” Venkatakrishnan said. “I want to keep all our traditions. I plan on keeping all these going and teaching them to the next generation.”
Recipe: Mullu Murukku
As told by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan.
You will need a murukku maker to form the dough in the shape you want your murukku to be. These can be found online. They have interchangeable plates that make different shapes. Alternatively you could probably use a piping bag and nozzle, although I’ve never tried that.
Makes: 20 to 30, depending on size of each murukku
- 2 cups rice flour
- ½ cup moong dal flour
- 1-2 spoons gram flour (optional)
- ½ tablespoon butter
- Half a spoon of cumin seeds
- Oil for frying
- Salt to taste
Mix all the flours, butter, cumin seeds and salt together with water to make a soft dough. Set aside in closed-lid container.
Start heating the oil in a pot.
Prep the murukku maker. Choose the plate you want to use and oil both the plate and inside of the murukku maker.
Stuff the dough into the murukku maker and, when the oil is ready, start piping or squeezing it out. You can either pipe it directly into the oil, or pipe it onto something else beforehand and then transfer the pieces into the oil.
Let the murukku fry until it’s crispy, then flip each one and repeat.
Remove from oil.
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