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The proof is in the pancake
When he first places the appachatti on the burner for the day, Velu Murugan, the chef at Dakshin in Delhi, lights a little lamp. To the gods, he says. I don't quite do a ritual, but I do send up a little prayer to the toughto-please Goddess of Appams. Why else would the pancake on some days decide to lump gracelessly in the middle, the edges not fan out delicately in a lace, or worse, the whole thing refuse to un-stick from the wok?
It takes nerve and grit to not give up on cracking the appam. I have seen some strong kitchen geniuses fall by the wayside, vowing brokenly never ever to touch the appachatti again. It is heartbreaking to have to write off an entire batch of rice batter, not to mention one or many coconuts and a lot of effort.
There must be a science to appam-making which yields the perfect product, like a well baked cake. But the best way to get it right is to try and try again as I learnt the hard way. "You need to practise, " agrees Nimmy Paul, who must have held thousands of hands through appam disasters. Paul runs one of the oldest and most popular homestays in Kochi and was among the first to start cooking lessons for her guests, mostly foreigners. Appam and stew top the list at her home, both at the dining table as well as the cooking class.
Kitchen travails aside, as Paul will tell you, appam and stew are fast becoming one of the most widely-loved ensembles. "It has become immensely popular and trendy, particularly among those who like delicate flavours, " she says, opting to serve it with either a creamy fish moilee or chicken stew. "Be it a child or an elderly guest, it has become a lifesaver for me. " At the Dakshin chain in Delhi and across the country, the appam and its varied accompaniments are the most asked-for item. Velu Murugan chooses to go beyond the basic vegetarian/chicken stew and offer it with some fairly tangy options including fiery Chettinad prawns, Andhra venchina mamsam (a spicy mutton dish) and Konkani gassi (a coconut-based curry).
Every seasoned appam maker has a recipe, a tip, a variation on the theme - how best to ferment the batter, how to get the ideal consistency, which temperature works the best. The appam maybe bland but the debate around it is fairly fiery. My earliest memories of appams are sort of wrapped in a mildly alcoholic haze. As kids, after a meal of countless appams and curry, we would invariably sink into a deep and dreamless postbreakfast slumber. My grandmother, I learnt later, used fresh toddy to ferment the batter. Nothing else will work, she would insist. There are those who believe yeast is the only way to stir things up but an aunt stubbornly refuses to use both, opting instead to grind up an overripe banana into the batter. There are those who get out of the whole fermentation debate by using urad daal. The last raises a howl of protest from the traditionalists.
"But that is like an idli in an appachatti, how does it become an appam?" argues Lathika George author of the brilliant cookbook on Syrian Christian food, The Suriani Kitchen and a stickler for the traditional yeast/toddy option. The urad daal variation of the appam is popular in Tamil Nadu's eateries - perhaps more fail-proof but hardly the real McCoy. The same rice-urad daal batter could work for dosa, idli, appam and the kuzhipaniyaram (a kind of fried, spiced idli).
George compares appam making to baking bread, it isn't for those who are short on patience. She says the trick is to understand the fact that appams work best when made from watery batter. At a demo she held at the Park Hotel in Delhi she recalls showing volunteers how to thin down the batter to get the perfect lace edge and the spongy centre. "If your mix is watery the layer that becomes a frill will be thin and what settles in the middle will be just thick enough. Also you have to make sure you only swirl the batter once around the chatti or else the sides will become too thick for the lace effect, " she says.
There are many theories about how and when the appam arrived in Kerala. One is that it came with the Dutch and their pancake (the Sri Lankans who were ruled by the Dutch have appams as well, including a variant with an egg cracked into the middle).
Then Kerala Christians as well as Jews trace the antiquity of the pesaha appam made for Passover to their ancestors from the Levant. This ceremonial appam is not fermented.
But it remained for a long time a treat, made on special occasions. "It could be feast day or a day when the family was celebrating something, not quite the daily bread it has become today, " says Paul.
A practice that has become rare now is using cooked rice flour to give the batter the necessary consistency. It is almost a ritualistic practice, creating this kappi as it is called. Rice flour or rava is cooked with water and blended into the batter. Since it means organising flour and an added cooking process, it fell out of favour with those who didn't want to slog over the cooking fire. Nimmy Paul remembers her childhood home where a maid would sit on the floor with a big bowl, kneading the kappi for half an hour.
It wasn't long before smart housewives found a way out of the tedium - they would toss in a fistful of cooked rice into the blender for the desired kappi effect. But Velu Murugan insists that the traditional kappi is the only way to guarantee a perfect appam. He painstakingly creates a fresh batch everyday, he says. "Cooked rice and all don't work, you will not get it like this, " he says pointing to a flawless specimen. And while tearing a morsel of his impeccable appam and letting it crunch and alternately melt into the palate was a remarkable experience, I will settle, I think, in my kitchen for the lazy version.
EASY DOES IT
Grind a cupful of raw rice, soaked for a couple of hours, along with half a coconut grated and a fistful of cooked rice. Add salt. Soak half a teaspoon of yeast in warm water along with a spoonful of sugar. When this dissolves, add to the batter and let the batter sit overnight. In summer, add the yeast a couple of hours before the cooking to prevent excessive fermentation.
TIPS FOR A FLAWLESS APPAM
Keep the consistency more watery than dosa batter for the lace effect
Do not swirl the appachatti more than once to spread the batter
Do not over-ferment, refrigerate if it shows signs of turning too sour
Keep the fire low or else the sides will char while the centre remains underdone
You can substitute coconut with coconut milk for a smoother batter
Coconut water or a small banana can be used to speed the process of fermentation instead of yeast
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