We haven't been to India (yet), but we're pretty sure that when we finally get there it will taste, look, and sound more than a little bit like the Klang Valley's 'Little Indias'. Malaysia's 'India-ness' is especially on display in the few weeks leading up to Deepavali (Diwali), India's 'Festival of Lights', when holiday treats show up at street stalls in Malaysia's Indian communities. Most are sugary, a testament to the Indian love of sweets.
A tip-off from my Punjabi bahasa Malaysia teacher led us to this Brickfields vendor on Jalan Tun Sambanthan in the vicinity of the Seetharam shop, whose icebox is filled with Mumbai-made Kapoor kulfi (slow-melting Indian ice cream). He tells us that though the kulfi is served year-round in restaurants, it's available for individual purchase only during Deepavali. In the interest of responsible investigative journalism we picked up a box of mixed flavors (which will stay frozen for a half hour; about 40 RM for 12 pieces, 24 servings for normal eaters and 12 for greedy eaters like us).
Thumbs down to the pistachio and mango flavors, which tasted flat and artificial. Much better were the nothing-but-full-fat-milk plain, the aromatic and nutty almond, and the intriguing, almost floral saffron-pistachio varieties. We passed on the chocolate chip and rose was unavailable; there are still more flavors to choose from. Which means, of course, that we'll be back.
A few stalls away, a shy Muslim Punjabi originally from Pakistan is selling a selection of homemade treats. Though he's has worked at a restaurant in the Jalan Masjid India area for years, this is his first year doing business at the Brickfields Deepavali market. He says business has been 'not bad' but we suspect it's much better than that, judging by the loveliness of his offerings. We were drawn by his alwa (halva), an almond-crusted, 6-inch high cake of caloric goodness.
'A Punjabi favorite!' declared a gorgeously coiffed and made-up customer, as she handed over payment for a quarter of his supply.
We opted for just 100 grams (RM 5) and immediately regretted not purchasing more. We're not sure what's in this alwa - other than almonds, sugar, and lots and lots of ghee - but it's got a great texture (half moist-cakey, half crumbly) and a real depth of flavor that intensifies and becomes caramel-like towards its dark middle. Keep an eye out also for his patisa (1 RM for 100g), a gorgeously textural daal flour-based sweet that separates into layers as if it were delicate French pastry.
On the same strip, but in the direction of KL Sentral, the shelves just outside the entrance to the Bombay Point House of Fashion are laden with handmade Punjabi papad, to toast at home on a hot nonstick skillet, under the broiler, or (carefully) over a gas flame. Made with various daal flours, these papad are nicely legume-ish in flavor, noticeably less salty than the packaged types sold in grocery stores, and bursting with spice. The red chile and white chile (fresh chilies that have been soaked in vinegar and then dried in the sun) varieties are numbingly incendiary, the Amritsar mild but no less flavorful, with its cumin and fennel seeds. We'll return for more of these and other flavors such as green chile garlic and urad daal with black pepper. On our first visit we spied packages of black daal papad but, sadly, they seem to have permanently disappeared from the shelves.
At Klang's Deepavali market keep an eye out for a Tamil woman and her son selling these unusual steamed rice flour and jaggery (palm sugar) sweets. They're named (help, readers?) for the way they're formed, by squeezing a piece of dough with the fingers.
Novelty aside, they're not exceptionally tasty - gummy and rather plain. Better are the white 'dumpling' pastries sold alongside (name?), delicate sweet dough hiding a delicious daal, sugar, and shredded coconut filling. These vendors also offer freshly steamed string hoppers (thin rice flour noodle 'nests') to eat with jaggery.
Ladu, sweetly spiced daal balls, are not a special-occasion treat ... unless they're huge and studded with soft dates, as these are.
I'm not normally partial to ladu, but was won over by the moistness and heady cardamom scent of this version. Even under the best of circumstances, however, a 6-inch ball of sweet daal is more than I can handle on my own.
There's really nothing Deepavali-ish about Jai Hind's window display. It's pretty much the same year-round, which is to say: enticing. Probably Klang's best-known sweets shop, Jai Hind - no relation to the Kuala Lumpur shop of the same name ('Madame!! They are [Punjabi] Sikhs, we are Indian!!') -sells just about any sort of fix for the sweet tooth, including gorgeous mini fruit-alikes.
We particularly like Jai Hind's sugar-soaked suji (semolina) and cornmeal (?)-based cake, with its nubbly texture and subtle spices.
Also available year-round is the Madras masala milk served at Asoka Curry House. You'll know the place by the huge wok of frothing yellow tinted milk streetside, near the cash register. Though perhaps not the most refreshing thing on a hot afternoon, this concoction of fresh cow's milk infused with hazelnut, raisins, cashews, cardamom, dried ginger, 'herbal nuts' (unspecified), and saffron is smooth as a rich custard, reminiscent of melted ice cream, and perhaps worth a trip to Klang in and of itself.
The Brickfields kulfi stall is near Seetharam, on Jalan Tun Sambanthan (if you're approaching from Jalan Bangsar, turn right at the intersection and make the first U-turn; it's on your left). The alwa/patisa stall is near the kulfi stall, towards the U-turn. The papad stall is directly in front of the Bombay Point House of Fashion, a jewelry shop (pay for papad inside the shop), near the kulfi stall but in the opposite direction, towards KL Sentral.
Klang Deepavali Market, 'Little India', Jalan Tengku Kelana. If you're approaching from the bridge, Jai Hind and Asoka Curry House will be on your right, and the tamil sweets stall is down an alley off of Tengku Kelana between those two shops, on your left as you walk down the alley. Huge ladu from a stall on the opposite side of the street.