Appam | And Tales of Coconut Milk



I fall into the category of Malayalees that would be thrilled at the sight of steaming hot Vellappam for breakfast. Or dinner. Mind you, they’re best eaten if they’re made by mom so they are magically replenished and you can tuck into them leisurely. With tiny variations in ingredients according to the region, the batter is essentially rice and coconut ground together and allowed to ferment overnight. Its lacy edges and pillowy soft centers are characteristic features of these hoppers that are popular in the south of India and Sri Lanka. It is made in an Appam Chatty which is pretty similar to a wok. Ladlefuls of batter are poured into the heated pan and then swirled by the handles to spread where it rests against the sides to crisp and brown. The residual batter trickles to the centre where it is would be cooked through from the steam of the covered pan. One of the food resolutions I made for the new year is to tackle my list of food fears. This list has recipes that I have tried myself and they have fallen flat in either flavor or because of my imperfect technique. I have re-read these recipes and the thought of failing again and discarding the failed product puts me off. And sitting right on top of this list was Vellappam.  



I knew the recipe I had at hand is fail proof. My moms’ recipe uses yeast for fermentation which makes the batter rise effortlessly in the right temperature. A lot of recipes shy away from yeast and are replaced by baking powder and soda. While they do rise and yield spongy centers, the distinct flavor that fermentation done by yeast lends to the batter is irreplaceable. Previously when I have made Appam, the edges would crisp and caramelize, the centre would rise half an inch easily but the biggest hurdle was a uniformly swirled Appam. Despite oiling the pan, the batter wouldn’t spread uniformly. It would either slide too fast making it too thin or if I took time to swirl would end up with thicker edges that wouldn’t brown or crisp and eventually dry and crack. And the truth of the matter is there is nothing you can do to mask a misshapen Vellappam.



My son loves Matta rice. It is a parboiled rice variety that is indigenous to Kerala. Short, stubby with red veins on the surface, if he sees the rice boiled left to cool, he would pick a plate of that over cookies any day. And my boy LOVES cookies. I had a couple of tablespoons of rice leftover and it triggered my memory of reading this on the ingredient list of Vellappam. I had acquired the tool that promised perfectly shaped Appams four years ago. It was right there in my pantry, waiting to be used. 


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Before my folks moved back to Kerala from Dubai, Jayanthi was hired to help around house when my (now deceased, may He bless her soul) grandmother moved with us 17 years ago. Hailing from Sri Lanka, she quickly grew accustomed to Malayali cuisine. It wasn’t difficult for her given there were plenty of regional similarities when it came to ingredients, techniques and recipes. Appams are extremely popular in Sri Lanka too, particularly their egg hoppers. An egg is cracked directly into the middle of the batter and then cooked just enough to produce a runny yolk when poked and finished with a sprinkle of coarsely ground pepper. One particular year when she returned from her vacation, she brought back this Appam Chatti. She bought two different sized ones for mom and one small one for me. Made of aluminum, they are extremely lightweight and have a more hollow centre compared to the nonstick pans available. Like caring for a cast iron pan, these pans are never meant to be washed. Soaping is a big no-no. They are oiled with sesame oil right before and after the Appam (ceremony, really!) is made. News spread of the pan that made perfect Appams and soon enough, family members were getting in touch with Jayanthi to procure this shining beacon of Appam hope.

Now one particular time, I had watched Appams being made hurriedly and they couldn’t be released. And unlike how it sticks in non-stick pans, releasing burnt Appams was a physical task that required desperate scrubbing of the now burnt mess. For this reason, I came to the conclusion that if seasoned cooks could slip up, there is no way I would unleash the perfect Appam even with this pan. It has moved two houses with me in the last 4 years untouched. Unused. Until I decided 2020 would be the decade to conquer fears big and small.

So I started small. I made the smallest batch of Appam batter possible. I decided I wouldn’t rush myself in the process. I said a silent prayer when my first Appam hit the pan. Resisting the urge to uncover the lid to check for browning, I let it steam for a little over a minute. The finished Vellappam slid right off. To negate beginners luck, I poured and made three more Appams. And they all came out with caramelized edges and pillowy centers. The next day, I tried again. I tried making it Jayanthi’s way and cracked an egg into the center. They cooked perfectly and popped out of the pan without a single crack. I can now say I have finally unlocked the achievement of a perfect Appam!



Depending on what time of the day you’re eating Appam, the curry served alongside will differ.  That being said the dish that is almost always said in the same breath as Appam would be stew. Stew or Ishtu is made with mutton or chicken and is a mild curry laced with pepper. It starts with slivered onions and ginger, curry leaves plucked and torn and then carrot and potato chunks are boiled with water. The meat is then added to this boiling broth with pepper crushed just enough to induce a couple of sneezes. While the meat cooks slowly on simmer, Coconut milk is expressed and if you’re following a traditional recipe, it would be done in three parts. With each express, the milk squeezed from grated coconut meat becomes thinner. The thickest milk is reserved for adding at the very end. To avoid the risk of it curdling, once the milk is poured it’s stirred just enough to blend with the stew and then taken off the heat.

As much as I would have liked to start a morning with stew and Appam, a weekday is filled with chores and tasks before the impending school run in the afternoon. I did however have Egg Roast from the night before minus the eggs. This would be a close second in the list of Appam accompaniments. The roast I learnt after marriage is very different to what I was used to eating. The onions are barely allowed to brown before adding in roughly chopped tomatoes that are cooked to mush. The fiery red color has to be reflected in heat and chilli powder does just that. Boiled eggs are quickly stirred in the masala staining them a faint yellow.

Speaking of variation, what you have with Vellappam would also depend on which part of Kerala you’re from. In Thrissur, Appams wouldn’t be set on the table without a jug or bowl of coconut milk. It doesn’t matter that the stew has just that. The Appams centres have to be submerged under ladles of milk before serving yourself the curry. As children, you would eat these soaked Appams with a metered sprinkling of sugar. This luxury, if I may say so, of warm coconut milk on the table came to a halt once I was married to Trivandrum. It was baffling to witness the contrast of its copious use in almost every meal to finding it eerily absent in the cuisine of my marital home.

I fondly remember how my niece Haya came over for a family dinner where Appam was served. She looked around the table and asked me “Thenga Paal Evidey?”  It is a given that a half empty jug of coconut milk could be found on some corner of the table after having been passed around at the beginning of the meal. My mother in law quickly warmed a glass of cow’s milk and served it just for her. Just shy of six, she didn’t notice the difference and continued to eat her milk drenched Appams. From then onwards, regardless of what the menu was, a bowl of coconut milk would make an appearance on the table when my side of the family were over for dinner. 



As luck would have it, my plans of making coconut milk for 1 were dashed having realized I didn’t have enough grated coconut. That tinge of disappointment was quickly replaced with the decision to make Chammanthy. It may sound like a lazy idea but the pairing is oddly satisfying. Whole dried chillies are toasted till they begin to smoke in a hot dry pan and blitzed with half a clove of garlic and coconut. I like to add a squeeze of lemon right at the end. That tangy note softens the heat from the chilli and it ties the sweetness of Vellappam successfully. Now only a tiny splash of coconut milk could make it better. 


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Let me tell you what my favorite part of the Appam is. I start snapping off the lacy edges and work my way to the fluffy white core of the Appam. That is where my heart is. I make sure none of the curries seep their way to the middle. It has to be eaten as is, without anything. There’s a faint acidic note from the fermentation that brings out the sweetness even more. The steam cooks it just enough to leave it moist and it invariably sticks to your teeth. The art is to reach the centre while it is still warm from the pan. For me, it’s the closest thing to having cake for breakfast.


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Vellappam

INGREDIENTS

  • White rice – 1 cup

  • Freshly grated Coconut – ½ cup

  • Boiled Matta rice – 2 tbsp

  • Active Dried  yeast –  ½ tsp

  • Sugar – 2 tbsp

  • Rice Flour – 1 Tbsp

METHOD 

  • Wash raw white rice thoroughly.

  • Soak it in ONLY fresh water for minimum 8 hours or overnight. This water will be used later so it is important not to use tap water for soaking.

  • Grind the rice in a mixer jar with just enough of the water used for soaking.

  • Grind it for a minute and check the consistency. If it is too thick, add not more than ¼ cup of water used for soaking. Grind again.

  • Add the fresh coconut, boiled matta rice and sugar and grind again for not more than 2 minutes.

  • Lastly, add the yeast and blend again. Check the consistency of the batter. It should not be too thick.

  • Take ½ cup of the soaked rice water and place it in a saucepan. If there is no remaining soaking liquid, use fresh water.

  • On a low flame, start heating the water and add the rice flour to it.

  • Stir the mixture continuously to prevent lumps and until it becomes very thick and pasty.

  • Let it cool completely.

  • Pour the blended Appam batter into a steel vessel. 

  • Add the thickened rice flour paste and mix it thoroughly into the batter till dissolved. It is best to use your fingers for this step.

  • Allow the batter to ferment overnight.

  • Before using the appam batter, add a generous pinch of salt and then stir the batter.

  • Pour up to 2 ladles of batter into your heated Appam pan and swirl the pan to spread the batter and to create laced edges. Cover the pan and let it cook for 2 minutes. The edges should be delicately browned and crisp.

  • If you like a thicker centre (like me), pour upto 3 ladles of batter before swirling.

  • Serve immediately with coconut milk, egg roast and Chammanthy.

NOTES

  1. Fermenting: Since yeast is used to leaven the batter, it should rise without trouble. However, in cold weather it might not rise properly. Here is what I do. I soak the water early in the morning and grind the batter at about 6 pm. I then keep my vessel on the countertop very close to my stove. The residual heat from preparing or heating dinner is enough to warm the steel vessel to help the batter rise. If this is not an option, preheat your oven to about 100 degrees Celsius and switch it off. Place the vessel into the warm oven and let it rest overnight. I’ve read that switching on the oven light also helps to rise the batter.

  2. Storing: The above recipe yields close to 10 medium sized Appams. If you do not use the entire batter, make sure you refrigerate the remaining batter immediately. Place it on the countertop half an hour before you would make the Appams. You should see a few bubbles from the yeast action. I do not recommend storing the batter for more than 2 days especially if you’re feeding it to children because of the yeast.