Any Chennai resident would know the murukku, pictured here a trois:
Just as the dosai represents the pinnacle of tiffin, the murukku is the king of snacks. It is made mostly of rice, with a little bit of urad dal thrown in. My mother says she’d grind about seven parts of rice along with about one part of (roasted) urad dal to make the batter for the murukku, often using even a slightly higher proportion of rice to dal. She’d throw in asafetida and cumin and salt. And then comes the hard part, the laying down of the murukku before frying. As you can see, it has a pretty intricate shape. There are two independent twists going on. You take some batter in your hand, close your fingers around it, and then squeeze out the batter onto an oiled banana leaf, feeding out a small stream in between the thumb and forefinger. You twist your fingers as if you were screwing in the cap of your toothpaste tube, and simultaneously, you move your wrist in ever widening circles, so the batter is laid out as a spiraling spiral. Then you lift the laid out batter carefully from the banana leaf and deep fry it till it is golden.
Laying the batter out is an art form, and not all are blessed with this skill. My grandmother (who at 98 is mentally still sharp as a razor) used to be pretty good at it. Not for aught is this known in full as the kai murukku (or “hand murukku”). There are other (lesser) murukkus, where the batter is shaped by a press, in other words by a mere gizmo, before it is fried. Purists should scoff at these.
But as with all fine skills of life, this art form is being practiced less and less in people’s homes, as people’s lives get more and more busy. Conservative maamis who would never allow food from outside into their homes now simply buy their murukkus from the market.
Grand Sweets and Snacks are reputed to have the best murukkus in Chennai. Indeed, I used to make special trips to Adyar ten years ago, just before I’d head back to the US, buying a few kilos at a time. They add tons of butter to their batter (butter-to-their-batter, that should be in a song somewhere), which made their murukkus irresistible. But that was then, when there was only one Grand Sweets, and that was in Adyar. Since then, they’ve adopted the franchise model, and can be found everywhere in Chennai. Within a kilometer radius of my mother’s flat there are two, for instance. As with Starbucks, there has been brand dilution, and quality dilution. The old Adyar GSS proudly employed only women, but these new franchisees not only have men, but, in the case of the GSS closest to our house, Nepali men. Sacrilege! The holy murukku, emblem of Tamil culture, purveyed by Nepalese!
I prefer to get my murukkus from Suswaad instead. A much smaller outfit, just down the street from my mother’s flat, with less commercial ambitions, and a friendly small store ambience. Moreover, they don’t seem to add any butter to their batter, which is actually a good thing, and they make quite an effort to spin out the oil after frying. So, their murukkus are not greasy at all. The thing that seals the deal for me though is their advertisement right outside their shop:
That’s a cute and lovable Tamil Brahmin there, replete with kudumi and sacred thread! (Do they repaint the thread on this advertisement every avani avittam, the time of the year when Tamil Brahmins change theirs?) He’s kinda like the Pilsbury dough boy: who wouldn’t want to buy a murukku from this tubby TamBrahm?
But what’s all this got do with my bicycle you wonder? Well actually, everything. You see, ever since I landed, I have been eating murukkus like they are going out of fashion. I wake up and eat them first thing in the morning with my coffee. A few hours later I wander into the kitchen and grab a few. I round out lunch with a couple, then have a few more for tiffin. I don’t end the day with at least a couple more. And of course, when I go over to my grandmother’s home, she gives me a few murukkus with coffee. I am concerned that with all this ingestion of murukku, I am going to put on weight not in itsy-bitsy ounces and pounds, but in kilos. After much effort on my part (i.e., drinking lots of red wine), I just got my cholesterol down to 200, the first time ever that it has been down at this level since I started testing for it. I am really concerned that my lipid count will be all shot to hell with this murukku intake. So what is a guy to do? Not eating murukkus is simply not possible. There is only one other viable option—get on your bike and GO! Exercise is the only weapon against hyperlipidemia. And so:
Off I go everyday,
Pedaling my trusted Bike Friday,
Exploring these environs,
Chronicling these Chennaians,
And hoping these murukkus will simply go away.