At the pooja ('pooja' means prayers, but is also used generically to refer to an Indian religious ceremony) we met a local photographer who'd been hired by the Mariamman Temple to document the event. He led us up to a second floor balcony from where we got a bird's-eye-view (and some nice shots) of the devotees standing in a crowd, waiting to hand over their sembu of milk.
Dave continued to snap away long after he'd finished, so the two of us got to talking about - what else? - food. He piqued my interest with raves about a 'delicious, most refreshing' drink called moru. It's served after a pooja, free to devotees and attendees.(It's also taken just any old time, to refresh and/or aid digestion.)
After the pooja we encountered a vendor outside Mariamman temple's gate - plenty of sweet treats but no refreshing beverage. But a stall just up the street was mobbed with red-clad devotees reaching for styrofoam cups. I wormed my way into the crowd, but hesitated to grab a serving for myself; these women had just walked five kilometers barefoot, carrying pots of milk on their heads, and then stood in the temple's sweltering inner courtyard for an hour or two, waiting to deliver their offerings. I was tired and awfully thirsty, but deserving of a free cup of moru? I didn't think so.
A middle-aged lady to my rear gently pushed me forward. 'It's moru. Try it!' she urged.
She didn't have to push twice.
Moru is next to nothing - at its most basic, a blend of a little yogurt, lots of water, and salt, with a few curry leaves added for flavor - a super-thinned out salt lassi. But an incredibly, scrumptiously thirst-quenching one.
It's the salt, of course, which in small doses is just the thing when dehydration sets in (think Gatorade and other sports drinks).
It's also the way moru is - or should be - served: colder than a penguin's patooty. Behind the stall it was dipped from mammoth stainless steel vats (top photo), each holding a block of ice about 2 feet wide and a foot or so thick. Before pouring it into red plastic pitchers the moru minder 'pulled' the liquid again and again, bringing it up high before letting it fall it over the ice. By the time it was portioned into cups the moru was cold enough to induce an ice cream headache, if downed too quickly.
Yet moru's perfect thirst-quenching quality is derived from more than salt and cold. I think it's the curry leaves. In this simple preparation they lend a subtle grassy, vegetal flavor (there's nothing 'curried' tasting about moru) that, combined with the salt and the bit of body lent by the yogurt, makes a swallow of the drink not only refreshing, but substantively reviving. It's food (or at least it tastes like food) - nourishment, so to speak - in the form of a beverage as light as water.
For days after the pooja I dreamt about moru, wondering if it would taste as good if my throat wasn't parched. So, I whipped up a batch at home. Two batches, to be exact, because my bahasa Malaysia teacher (who happens to be Punjabi) told me that some moru makers like to tarka (let 'pop' in a hot pan wiped with the teeniest bit of oil) the curry leaves - along with fresh chile, onion, and black mustard seeds - before adding them to the liquid.
After comparing the two versions - basic moru and pretty simple moru - I can't decide which I like best. I do know, however, that it's essential to allow the moru to mellow in the fridge for at least six hours (overnight is best), and to serve it well chilled in an ice-free glass. I stole sips from my moru batches before and between meals, morning, noon, and evening. Conclusion: dying of thirst or not, this is one beautiful beverage.
2 large servings
Don't go crazy with the extra ingredients, if you opt to use them. The chile shouldn't burn and the onion shouldn't leave you burping. Moru should be salty, but if you're not using premium salt - kosher or sea or otherwise - reduce the amount by half to start, then add to taste. Flavoruful, full-fat yogurt is a must, to give a bit of body to what is already a very diluted beverage.
2 Tbsp delicious plain, full-fat yogurt
2 tsp salt
2 cups room temperature water
10 fresh or frozen curry leaves (or to taste)
vegetable or mustard oil
a slice or two of green or red chile, seeds removed if it's very hot
a small piece (1-inch) of onion
2 generous pinches of black mustard seeds
1. Put the yogurt, salt, and water into the jar of a blender and mix until the salt is dissolved. Pour into a pitcher.
2. Add curry leaves and stir.
(Or: wipe a small pan with oil - leaving no more than the thinnest film - and add the curry leaves, chile, onion, and mustard seeds. Place the pan over medium heat and allow to cook just until you can smell the ingredients and a few of the mustard seeds have popped. Do not allow the ingredients to brown. Remove from pan and add to the moru; stir.)
3. Refrigerate for at least six hours or, preferably, overnight.
4. Strain out the solids, if you wish. Reintegrate the yogurt and water (they will have separated) with whisk. Serve in chilled glasses.