A Return To God's Own Country: Part II
Paalappam has always been one of my favourite breads, nay dishes of all time. One of Kerala’s oldest dishes, as per food historian K. T. Achaya, it is even mentioned in the Perumpanuru (a Tamil poetic work belonging to the Sangam period corresponding to between 100 BCE – 100 CE.) One of the many appams of Kerala (appam literally meaning bread in Malayalam), the traditional recipe for Paalappam involves grinding rice and coconut into a batter before fermenting and then baking over the fire in a cast iron vessel. When fermented with toddy (Kallu), it’s typically cooked on the dosa griddle or Doshakallu and called Kallappam.
If you’ve been to Kerala or for that matter, any Kerala restaurant, you’ve definitely encountered a Paalappam. If you are a Syrian Catholic Malayali like me, chances are that you’ve run into these breads at almost every Syrian Catholic function you attended from Baptisms to Easter, wedding breakfasts to Betrothals, house warming to death ceremonies. But the fragrance of appams baking, reminds me of mornings in my mother's kitchen in Kochi overlooking the backyard that has my father pottering over lush shrubs, fruit-bearing trees and a thriving fish pond.
On the other hand, childhood memories of the appam bring back Sunday morning post-church breakfast in Delhi, served with a coconutty, creamy stew or an egg curry replete with caramelised onions and whole spices. This was the one day of the week when the family would eat breakfast together and the appam could be served hot and crisp out of its cast iron shallow kadhai. To the background of Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana, we’d vie for the freshest, hottest appams and fight to retain the crisp frill on the one in our plate despite all of my father's attempts to steal the loot when our eye’s turned to the television.
Though I’ve eaten Palappams in many a household, the gold standard for me remains my mother’s version, and another that I recently ate at the famous Calicut Paragon hotel in Kerala. Trust me when I say that a really good (paal)appam is a very specific thing. A golden, lacy rim that’s crackly and crisp, a soft almost cottony middle that’s riddled with tiny holes signaling perfect fermentation and flavour that’s milky, coconutty and just a tad sweet and sour without the overwhelming tang that’s the sign of over fermentation. The trick lies in making the perfect batter and using the right vessel. The fantastically seasoned cast iron appachatti or the tiny but heavy cast iron kadhai maybe the only single use vessel in my mom’s kitchen. But, as it’s gorgeous shiny patina will tell you, it gets pride of place and much-loving attention.
While baking the appams, she heats both the chatti and the lid over the flame to ensure that when covered, the effect is that of an oven and the top of the appam is perfectly cooked.
Over the last two years, I researched appams in the attempt to recreate the perfect appam with the least bit of effort in my Mumbaiah kitchen, and realised there are scores of variations that go around. From versions that involve using plain rice flour to ones that use roasted rice flour. Versions that still use the original toddy for fermentation to ones that use yeast or even urad dal. Ones where milk is added just before baking the appams to ones where coconut is ground into the batter. I’ve even come across versions that include the addition of cooked rice for the perfect fluffy texture, but my mother’s favourite trick is to add kappi or a slurry made with a tiny amount of the rice flour with copious amounts of water. The results are sublime - beautifully soft, moist centre with golden lacy edges.
To me, this addition of the slurry is particularly fascinating as it brings to mind my own experiences with the Tangzhong technique that the Japanese use to enhance wheat gluten and make the Hokkaido milk loaves pillowy and soft. Did these techniques travel, or was it just a coincidence that these age-old cultures both arrived at a similar trick to make breads rise better and softer, I can’t help but wonder.
I’ve finally managed to recreate appams that pass the litmus test, while making the process easier and quicker for our maverick fast-paced lives. Instead of grinding soaked rice, I use finely ground rice powder (roasted is great but plain should work too as long as it’s fine enough). If I don’t have the time (or gumption) to make my own coconut milk, which is of course ideal, I commit sacrilege and use coconut milk powder with equally delicious results. I also make the kappi, but with semolina instead of the rice flour, making the edges crispier and the middle softer. A quick teaspoon of instant yeast and I get perfect appams every single time. Like a good Malayali, I’ve got a chatti that I keep seasoned and while that is the ideal vessel to cook these in, I’m sure a shallow kadhai that’s non-stick should work as well.
The best way to serve the paalappam would be with a coconutty curry to mop up the soft bread with, but I love eating the crunchy bits on their own and soaking the soft parts in fresh coconut milk that is sweetened with jaggery. Atul, on the other hand is partial to a variation where I crack an egg into the middle of the appam, let it cook till the whites set, sprinkle it with gunpowder and drizzle with toasted sesame oil before serving. When in Kerala to attend our wedding, Amit (my brother-in-law), to my great consternation, declared that Paalappams were the perfect vehicle to soak up the makhani gravy drowning a good butter chicken! I may wrinkle my nose at the Punjabiness of that but who am I to judge? As long as the results are as delicious as should be!
Recipe for Paalappams (Serves 4)
2 tbsp semolina
2 cups water
2 cups fine rice flour (ideally use the fine rice flour that’s specially prepared for Palappams and Idiyappams that’s available at the large supermarkets or the South Indian specialty stores)
1 cup thick coconut milk (or 1 cup warm water and 3 tablespoons of coconut milk powder)
2 cups thin coconut milk (or 2 cups warm water and 2 tablespoons of the coconut milk powder)
1 tsp yeast (if using instant yeast, reduce it to ¾ teaspoon)
3 tbsp sugar
Salt to taste
1. If using active yeast, activate it by sprinkling it over ¼ cup warm (not hot) water along with one teaspoon of sugar and set aside.
2. Bring the semolina and remaining water to boil in a saucepan over high heat. Reduce to medium and keep stirring till the mixture turns opaque and thick as a porridge. Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm.
3. In a large bowl, mix the rice flour, yeast (activated as above or instant granules), coconut milks and semolina paste and whisk till absolutely smooth. You could also do this in a blender to ensure that the batter has absolutely no lumps in it. Set aside for an hour and a half.
4. Heat the kadhai or appachatti till a sprinkling of water dances and disappears on the surface. (If you don’t have a chatti or a non-stick kadhai, you could use a dosa griddle to make the appams. You won’t get that crisp frilly edge but the appams will still be soft and delicious). Once the vessel is heated well, reduce the flame to the lowest, pour the batter into the middle and holding the kadhai by its handles, twirl/rotate it around to spread the batter along the surface of the kadhai. The batter will stick in a thin circle to the outer circumference and flow back to the middle to thicken. Increase the flame to low-med, cover and let the appam cook. This is critical since you won’t be flipping the appam and the centre needs to cook in the steam that’s created inside the covered vessel. If the middle isn’t cooked well, it will taste gummy and raw.
5. Remove the cover and check to see if the appam is cooked in the middle. If more or less dry and cooked, bring the heat to a med-high (you could break in an egg at this point if you so like) and let it crisp to a golden brown in the middle and then remove the appam from chatti. Serve hot and crisp.