Header image adapted from Times of India
A ‘Rojak’ Deepavali
As a Tamil Singaporean (and enthusiast of Indian culture and traditions), Deepavali is the most important and colourful festival celebrated in my household. In fact, I spend not days, not weeks, but months preparing for it, from prepping outfits to decorating my house. Its also a moment when the intricacies of what it means to be Singaporean Indian truly come to life!
You may have learnt about Deepavali in school, and it’s true that Tamil communities here usually observe Deepavali as the day that Lord Krishna vanquished a demonic entity, Narakasuran. Hence, to celebrate the victory of light over darkness we illuminate our entire house with oil lamps! That said, the Singaporean Indian community is extremely diverse and there are many mythological legends and traditions that are observed by specific groups.
Oil lamps in my house (Credit: Shan)
But there are also wonderful things that are unique to Singapore and its culture. Our diasporic space brings various local delights into our festival. For me, the culinary elements of Deepavali are especially close to my heart as every dish embodies immense cultural significance. Here is a glimpse of the amazing food I’ve had for Deepavali – including some specials that you will find at other festivals too, like Hari Raya.
1. Banana Leaf Feast
The most vibrant part of my Deepavali celebration is undoubtedly the Vaazhai Ilai Virunthu – the Banana Leaf Feast! A huge banana leaf acts as the base for numerous food items.
Vaazhai Ilai Virunthu – the Banana Leaf Feast (Credit: Shan)
Notably, this meal is accomplished in accordance with an important Tamil cultural belief – the ‘Arusuvai’ Tastes. Arusuvai translates to ‘6 tastes’ – sweet, spicy, bitter, sour, salt and pungent.
When I was growing up, my grandmother would often tell me that these 6 tastes must be present on the leaf in order for the meal to be complete. For example, Maanga Chutney, a relish prepared with ripe mangoes and spices corresponds to the sour element.
Maanga Chutney (Credit: Shan)
For the sweet element, we serve homemade Mysore Pak, a confection made with sugar, ghee and gram flour, which literally melts in your mouth. It’s also available at many traditional sweet shops in Little India, do have a go the next time you’re in the area!
2. Ayam Rendang
Many of my favourite foods in my family’s Singaporean Deepavali celebration reflects our multi-ethnic society! For example, my mother’s signature Deepavali dish is the Indonesian / Malay Ayam Rendang, a sumptuous dry curry of chicken cooked in coconut milk and various spices.
Ayam Rendang (Credit: Shan)
Having learnt this recipe from my grandmother, my mother has now mastered it. She first grinds her own spice paste with shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and dried chillis. After frying this spice paste in oil, various other ingredients like cardamom and star anise are added. Then, coconut milk is eventually added into the pot and left to simmer. Finishing touches include toasted coconut shreds, kaffir lime leaves, sugar and salt. Drooling? Yeah so am I.
Not quite my grandmother’s recipe but this Meatmen recipe definitely got me drooling too.
Preparation Time: 2hr 30mins. Serves: 6 pax.
3. Tau Sambal
Another dish that reflects our cross-cultural exchanges and of significance in my house (and many other Singaporean Indian households) is ‘Tau Sambal’.
Tau Sambal (Credit: Shan)
Tau refers to a dish with Chinese origins – Tofu! Interestingly, we marinate Tofu with various Indian spices, fry it and add it into sambal, a popular Singaporean relish made of dried chillis and lemongrass.
Tofu is a vegetarian’s best friend; it’s also common that Tofu Sambal is cooked by Tamil-Hindu households on Fridays, when many are usually vegetarian for religious reasons.
4. Wajek – Steamed Glutinous Rice cooked in Gula Melaka and Coconut Milk
Many types of Indonesian / Malay ‘kuehs’ are also made during Deepavali and this is a heartwarming tradition we have been doing since my grandmother’s time. A dish which I have mastered and unfailingly make every year on the eve of Deepavali is ‘Wajek’ – steamed glutinous rice cooked in Gula Melaka (Palm-Sugar) and coconut milk.
Wajek (Credit: Shan)
Of course, there are certain Indian twists and elements that I incorporate into this Indonesian dish. For example, I add in a bit of cardamom for a piney and fruity undertone that complements the sweetness of Gula Melaka.
Every single Deepavali, I make Murukku. Some may say it’s too oily a snack, but do you know that’s precisely why we make it? (Other than how delicious it is, duh)
Murukku (Credit: Shan)
Oil plays a crucial role in Deepavali. The lamps that we light during the festival are fuelled by oil and in the morning we also take an ‘oil bath’ with Nallennai – gingelly oil. Oil also holds deep significance in the culinary traditions of Deepavali. It is believed that the practice of deep-frying festive foods in a pot of hot oil brings luck, auspiciousness and prosperity to the house.
For Murukku, After preparing a dough mixture of black gram flour, rice flour, salt, oil and sesame, I squeeze wheel-like shapes out of murukku-makers onto oil-coated banana leaves. Then, these uncooked murukkus are dropped from banana leaves into oil for a good deep fry.
Another popular dish made with oil is Athirasam. In my house, we playfully call them Indian doughnuts!
Athirasam (Credit: Shan)
I first make a dough-like mixture consisting of rice flour, jaggery, cardamom, sesame seeds and ghee before making them into little donut shapes and deep frying them in hot oil.
The resulting dish is a lip smacking dessert that has a crispy exterior while the internal portion melts in your mouth. Key flavours of Athirasam include the sweetness of jaggery combined with the buttery nutty notes of ghee!
7 / 8. Puli-Parangikai Piratal and Thenga-Paithanga Piratal
Deepavali food also has a spiritual element to it. Most Tamil families in Singapore and Malaysia practice the ancestral ‘padayal’ ritual. Performed at any time in the week before Deepavali, various food items are offered to our deceased ancestors on a large banana leaf.
It’s also a very emotional process because when we cook for this ancestral prayer, we tend to choose foods that were enjoyed by our deceased relatives. And these are my late grandmother’s favourites. She enjoyed Puli-Parangikai Piratal (pumpkin stir-fried with tamarind and other spices) and Thenga Paithanga Piratal (long beans stir-fried with shredded coconut).
Puli-Parangikai Piratal (left) & Thenga Paithanga Piratal (right) (Credit: Shan)
Passed down from generations way before myself; my great grandmother gifted this recipe to my grandmother and now, my mother is the masterchef behind all Deepavali festivities. Deepavali also gives us space to reminisce about loved ones through visceral emotions that food evokes.
Deepavali Foods in Singapore
My grandmother grew up in a Kampong alongside other Malay and Chinese families, and the Kampong spirit of sharing recipes and cooking techniques still resonates with us today.
As I think about the many Deepavali celebrations I have had so far, I realise that being Singaporean-Indian manifests in scrumptious ways during this festival – and this Rojak culture of incorporating various cultural elements still continues to shine as bright as the lamps we light for Deepavali.
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