Ondeh Ondeh cookies and more at Deepavali bazaars

Snack stall holders at Deepavali bazaars are offering new varieties of sweet treats to draw customers

As Deepavali rolls around, out comes the dizzying assortment of sweets and snacks.

But this time around, they are not just the usual

favourites such as sugee cookies, makmur (ghee cookies) and murukku.

Just look to the Deepavali bazaars in Little India, where snack stall vendors are peddling creative options to whet shoppers' appetites. Think new flavours such as ondeh ondeh cookies, macaron cookies and Nutella-filled kapit (wafer).

On top of introducing new snacks, some vendors are rolling out healthier snacks as well.

There are two bazaars in Little India: the 44-stall Deepavali Festival Village in Hastings Road and Campbell Lane; and the Deepavali Fair near Birch Road, which has more than 50 stalls. Both bazaars run until Oct 17.

Deepavali or Diwali, which falls on Oct 18 this year, is also known as the Festival of Lights and marks, for Hindus, the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.

The stalls at the Ramadan Bazaar play with novel flavours and rainbow colours for their snacks.

MS KATHIJA BEGAM, owner of snack stall Parveen, who took inspiration from the novel food offerings at the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, where she also had a stall this year

Stallholders say they are bringing in new varieties of snacks to stand out from the tough competition.

At the Deepavali Festival Village, about half of the 13 stalls in Hastings Road sell snacks and edible goodies.

A stall there selling unusual snacks is Parveen, which also offers henna services. It has increased its range of cookies from six to 15 this year and new products include ondeh ondeh-inspired cookies, Milo Dinosaur cookies, red velvet chocolate chip cookies and a green-hued pandan kuih rose (honeycomb cookies). They cost between $10 and $18.

These cookies are among the stall's bestsellers, with about 100 jars sold over the past two weeks.

Parveen's owner, Ms Kathija Begam, 49, was inspired by the "vibrant variety of snacks" sold at the popular Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, where she had set up a stall earlier this year.

"The stalls at the Ramadan Bazaar play with novel flavours and rainbow colours for their snacks," she says.

"I want to make Deepavali goodies more interesting to attract younger customers and to stand out."

A few booths away is Deva's Cookies, which is introducing more than 10 snacks, including kapit (wafer) filled with Nutella and Lava Crunch, rock-shaped chocolate meringue cookies.

Owner Sandran Raju, 56, who has been running a stall at the Deepavali bazaar for 16 years, says more wholesale snack suppliers have set up their own retail booths at the bazaar in recent years.

"I have to look for more creative snacks in order to stand out from the competition," he says.

Over at Campbell Lane, among the 50 types of cookies sold at Ajmir Store, 10 are new varieties.

They include tiramisu-flavoured cookies, brightly coloured dahlia cookies and macaron cookies that resemble their namesake.

The stall's second-generation director, Mr Mohamed Ismail, 31, comes up with ideas for his cookies based on what is trending in the food scene about six months before Deepavali.

He adds that he can concoct new varieties of cookies easily because Ajmir Store makes its snacks in a factory in Johor Baru.

Apart from novel varieties, Deepavali snacks are also becoming healthier.

Ajmir Store's cranberry and sugee cookies have half the sugar content of regular cookies.

And at the Deepavali Fair across from Serangoon Plaza, snack stall Uncle's Snacks has rolled out a ragi murukku made with a healthier blend of ragi, rice and urad dal flour.

Ragi is finger millet, a cereal with a lower glycaemic index which can help stabilise blood glucose levels.

The stall sells murukku in two other flavours - cashew nut and onion.

Uncle's Snacks owner Shan Rajan, 55, says the ragi murukku is "fast-moving", with about 20 jars sold daily.

She says: "There has been a strong demand, especially from those in their 30s and 40s who are health-conscious."

Also new this year are modes of payment at the bazaars.

At Deepavali Fair's Kuna's stall, which sells cookies named after Bollywood actresses, customers can pay by scanning a QR code via the EZi Wallet app.

To encourage customers to use the app, the shop is offering top-up rebates on weekends.

Customers can get a discount of $2 to $18 when they top up $10 to $50 in their EZi Wallet accounts.

Owner Kuna Vasu, 55, says: "Although I need to spend more effort explaining the system to customers, it is a fast and efficient way of collecting payment. It also prevents cash from getting lost."

Stall owners say these innovations are essential in the light of a weak retail scene.

They note that in the first three weeks of the bazaar, sales have been 25 to 40 per cent lower than in the same period last year.

Mr Rajakumar Chandra, 59, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, which manages the Deepavali Festival Village, says: "Customers have become more cautious with their spending. Those who visit Little India come to soak in the atmosphere and are buying less."

He adds, however, that sales typically pick up in the last 10 days before Deepavali.

Many Hindus visit the bazaar only after Theemithi, a fire-walking ceremony which takes place today. They usually fast and abstain from shopping before the ceremony.

Devas' Mr Sandran adds that some customers are taking advantage of the stronger Singapore dollar to buy their festive goodies in Malaysia.

For stallholder Ashok Dalani, 53, who has a booth at the Deepavali Festival Village in Hastings Road, sales have been "disappointing".

He gets about 20 customers a day who buy popular products such as bhujia (a stick-shaped snack made from chickpea flour), butter murukku and papadum.

It is his first time holding a stall at a bazaar and he brought in snack mixes, teas and sweets from India.

He says: "The organisers should either do more to draw crowds or start the bazaar only in the last two weeks leading up to Deepavali, when sales are most intense."

Selvni, a vegetarian snack stall at the Deepavali Fair, has responded to smaller orders by introducing small portions of its 20 types of goodies such as macadamia nut chocolate chip cookies and pineapple cheese tarts.

Instead of coming in just 800ml jars, they are also offered in 380ml to 400ml sizes at about half the price of the bigger portions.

Owner Ramani Rajappan, 54, says: "Offering smaller portions allows customers to buy more varieties of snacks with the same budget."

For some customers, however, it is business as usual.

Civil servant Jayanthie Jayatissa, 51, who visits the Deepavali bazaars twice a week to browse and shop, says: "I am attracted by the more colourful and vibrant-looking cookies. Though the economy is bad, I am not cutting down on my spending on festive goodies as it is a once-a-year occasion."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Unusual bites for Deepavali'. Print Edition | Subscribe