V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
When Mrs Sheetal Jain orders a pizza at an eatery in Singapore, she keeps aside the sauces and the chilli and cheese flakes that come with it.
The account manager in an advertisement company will then dig into her handbag and bring out the packet of sev (crunchy and spicy noodles made from chickpea flour paste) which she always carries with her.
With delight, she will proceed to sprinkle sev on the pizza and eat it with relish.
"Sev is a must with any food that a person from Malwa eats," said Mrs Sheetal. "Everything has to have a spicy topping. Jeeravan (a mix of 32 different Indian spices) is another option. We also like onions and tamarind and green chutneys with our samosas and other snacks."
Food is a prime passion for Malwis, who hail from Malwa, a region in west-central India that encompasses districts of western Madhya Pradesh and parts of south-eastern Rajasthan.
About 400 of them live in Singapore, having come here since the 1940s in search of better work and business prospects.
"All our favourite food can be found at Sarafa Bazaar (a night street-food court in Indore, India's cleanest city)," said Mrs Sheetal.
"Since we do not have a similar market in Singapore, we arrange regular get-togethers at East Coast Park or Pasir Ris Park where we prepare the dishes we like and share."
According to Mr Karn Chandra, a telecom technology sales manager who came to Singapore seven years ago, poha (rice flattened into light, dry flakes) is a must for Malwis at breakfast.
"It actually is eaten at all times during the day," he said. "All you need is onions and chilli to enjoy it."
He also said that dal baati (cooked pulses or lentils and bread made of wheat flour) and bafla (ghee laden dough balls) are staples for Malwis.
"Bafla is traditionally made in a stove fuelled by cow dung," said Mr Chandra. "Since cow-dung cakes are not available in Singapore, we make them barbecue style in pits at ECP or Pasir Ris Park.
"Everyone chips in to prepare it and have an opinion on how it should be made. Eating and airing views are the two loves of the Malwis."
Malwis take pride in being open, warm-hearted and hospitable.
"Build a family, not a community" is the tagline of the Malwa Cultural Association (MCA), which was registered in April last year and has about 200 members.
"Everyone gets involved in doing something, no one feels out of place," said Dr Shirish Johari, an ENT specialist at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital and president of the association.
"Whether it is singing, dancing, cooking or planning events, we never outsource. We have so many talents who are keen to keep our culture and traditions alive and kicking."
Malwa, whose main cities are Indore (commercial capital), Ujjain (religious centre) and Jabalpur (cultural capital), has been ruled by several kingdoms and dynasties, including the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Mughals and the Marathas.
Although its political borders have fluctuated throughout history, the region has developed its own distinct culture, influenced by the neighbouring Rajasthani, Marathi and Gujarati cultures. "We speak a dialect called Malwi, which is a variant of Hindi," said Mr Sachin Kumar, a software engineer who moved to Singapore two years ago. "For instance, every male is fondly addressed as "bhayya" (brother) in Hindi. In Malwi, they are called "biya".
Majority of Malwis are Hindus, while Jains, Dawoodi Bohras, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis form sizeable numbers.
In Malwa, the biggest festival is the Simhastha mela, held every 12 years, in which more than 40 million pilgrims take a holy dip in the river Shipra in Ujjain. In Singapore, members of the community celebrate Deepavali, Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi and Navratri along with the Gujaratis, Rajasthanis and Marathis. On their own, they celebrate Rang Panchami (festival of colours), Gangaur in honour of Shiva and Parvati and Gudhi Padwa which marks the traditional new year
"Malwis always celebrate Hindu festivals in a different way," said Mrs Shweta Jain, a software engineer from Jabalpur who has been living in Singapore for the past five years. "These are customised to our culture.
"We pray to Sheetla Mata (wife of Guru Dronacharya) by going to the temple and eating cold food prepared a day earlier. The belief is that if we don't light the stove on the day of prayers, it will ward off small pox and other illnesses and work to improve the health of our children."
Tradition plays a big role in the Malwis' lifestyle in Singapore. They play games such as sitholia (seven tiles), gilli-danda (tipcat) and kite flying during the festivals and prefer vegetarian food.
Women usually wear saris or salwar suits, while the men turn out in kurta-pyjamas. The safa, head gear, is worn during ceremonial functions.
"Our events are meant to de-stress and enjoy," said Mr Amit Khandelwal, supply chain head in a trading company and secretary of the MCA. "They are also comfort zones for our elders. We believe in simple living, eating well and being happy. Earning big is not an issue."
Malwis traditionally are into farming, business and folk art. Most of them in Singapore are professionals or engaged in business.
The first Malwi to arrive in Singapore is believed to be a man who joined Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army in the 1940s.
"Though we are 2,000km away from home, we don't feel like we are far away in Singapore," said Mr Gaurav Tambi, IT lead in a bank, who came to Singapore in 2013. "We celebrate every festival and get news about the happenings in every area of Malwa through our network.
"Ask anything and we will get an answer within five minutes from a member of our community. People like to give opinions even if they are wrong. Over-excitement is in our blood."
Minority Indian communities in Singapore: Malwis (400 people)