The Sarawak Cheshire Home was my mother’s passion project- a charitable organization opened in 1966 by the highly decorated British Air Force pilot and philanthropist Baron Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire on a visit to Borneo. It was to cater to the disabled from lower income communities, offering accommodation, physical therapy and medical assistance.
Meanwhile, shy and a complete novice in the kitchen, my Malayalee mother was transforming herself; launching wholeheartedly into a new independent life in Borneo. She joined the local convent school to teach high school English and History, learned to cook (and went on to become renown in our little community for her amazing cooking) and searched for activities to immerse herself in. The Cheshire Home was the charity she chose to lavish her efforts on.
In 1970, the committee headed by the town’s philanthropist businessman Datuk Ang Lai Soon decided on an annual charity bazaar for a fundraiser. The idea of a bazaar absolutely captured my mother’s imagination; she swung into action preparing for her ‘International Food Stall’. That project took on a life of its own- it was a subplot to our family’s everyday lives and hummed away in the background evident in giant tins of cooking oil, sacks of flour and sugar she’d coax from unsuspecting shopkeepers, boxes and plastic bags which would be used to wrap all the food being made for sale.
It was rather amazing what mum would accept as a donation for her stall- she found a use for everything, and she collected a wide variety of items- no one was spared. If the banana street cart guy gave mum a huge hand of plantain, she’d turn the bananas into fried chips for the sale.
One year, an impatient businessman loaded mum with some sacks of cement from his factory; she didn’t miss a beat. Tucking her saree carefully into her waist, she crossed the road to the neighbours who were building a retaining wall around their garden.
She returned triumphant with a wad of cash, the cement agreeably disposed of.
Apart from the coconut candy and milk toffee she’d press her Sri Lankan girlfriends to donate by the basket full, there’d be cakes and curry puffs, Country Women Association slices and neat mounds of banana leaf wrapped nasi lemak. International indeed. Her Chinese school teacher colleagues would bring crushed peanut cookies that melted on the tongue, moon cakes and love letters which were a crisp, millefeuille like cigar shaped light as air sweet biscuit. Malay neighbours and school teacher friends would make tiny jam tarts and coconut milk steamed layered cakes.
Mum’s big seller at the charity bazaar was always murukku. She’d start the process a few days beforehand; the charcoal brazier would be set up on the back verandah under the mango trees for an extra frypan. While she deftly mixed batch after batch of dough with just the right flavourings and seasonings, long suffering helpers and daughters would be toiling over the multiple stoves, frying the savoury snacks in the tropical heat.
Murukku is a popular South Indian savoury snack that is dangerously moreish and perfect for almost any time of day to eat. It is particularly good with a cup of chai, but equally delicious with a cold beer or cocktail. Mum always had a stash in an airtight tin for drop-in visitors. Along with the aunties’ and uncles’ scotches and nimbu pani, there would always be a cut glass dish piled high with mum’s best murukku to be passed around.
Here's the recipe:
1 cup besan flour
3 cups fine rice flour
½ cup sesame seeds (dry roasted)
1-2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds (dry roasted)
80 g softened butter
Tap water to form a very soft dough
1.5 to 2 litres cooking oil like canola or rice bran
Biscuit press or pastry bag with a medium nozzle
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large clean bowl, stir through with a fork.
Add the butter, and now using your fingers begin to knead into a dough.
Add water, a tablespoon at a time to bind everything together, kneading to a very soft and pliable consistency.
Now pour the oil into a wide and shallow saucepan and heat on a steady low heat.
Test the oil is ready for frying by dropping a tiny ball of dough into it. If it sizzles and rises to the top you’re ready.
Drop a medium star shaped nozzle into a pastry bag, and fill with a few spoonfulls of soft dough.
Holding the pastry bag over the oil, squeeze out the pastry over the oil, circling the bag around the pan. Do not repeat the process on top of what's cooking on the oil- fry
only one layer at a time.
The pastry should be sizzling, and gradually rise to the top.
With a slotted spoon, flip over the pieces and cook till evenly coloured to a deep golden.
Remove from the oil and drain thoroughly on paper towels.
Cool completely before breaking into smaller pieces and storing in an air tight container (if there's any left!)