No Cutlery Required
A staple on breakfast tables across Sri Lanka, hoppers unite the bright flavours of this island nation in a mouthful, as Natasha Dragun discovers.
If you’re not a fan of washing up, then you’ll love making hoppers (appam), a nuanced coconut-based dish traditional to southern India and Sri Lanka that requires a few pantry staples and very ‘seasoned’ pan to prepare – and very little else.
I was introduced to a variety of this breakfast favourite almost two decades ago, sitting in a Tamil Nadu garden where peacocks crooned and tea was served by dapper bow-tied waiters. My order was string hoppers (idiyaapam): unctuous noodles made from rice flour fermented with coconut water, coconut milk and salt, before being moulded into palm-sized patties then steamed until they resemble wicker mats.
The surprisingly cloud-like parcels were the perfect pouch on which to rest tongue-numbing condiments: coconut sambol (freshly grated coconut, lime, red onion, chilli, Maldives fish flakes, black peppercorns, salt); lunu miris (a spicy paste similar to the former sambol, but minus the coconut); and a menagerie of curries and dahls with aromas I still dream of to this day.
I didn’t think it could get much better – until I landed in Colombo, the steamy Sri Lankan capital, and was tasted the crispier, pancake-like version of the dish.
Rather than being squished into a tangle of noodles, the appam edition of hoppers features a batter that is swilled around your cook’s seasoned (aka rarely washed) pan. The end result is a pearly pancake ‘bowl’ that can be pimped up with a fried egg (recommended) and then topped with all aforementioned accoutrements.
“Think of the pan like a complex painting,” says George, my guide on an Unmapped Travel tour around Sri Lanka. “The artist keeps layering and layering – they add and mould, and things develop and get better over time.” He’s not wrong.
Despite the limited number of ingredients involved and the short cooking time – just a couple of minutes in that magical pan – these breakfast baskets couldn’t get any tastier, or more textural. And it’s not just the cookware adding to the abundance of attitude: there’s plenty of skill in preparation.
The appam flour is customarily made by hand: rice is soaked for six hours before being pounded and then left to brew with palm toddy (fermented sap from coconut flowers) overnight. It’s then seasoned with coconut milk, whole eggs and salt to create a bubbling batter. Some rebels – like my Sri Lankan friend back in Sydney – dare to add a couple of Marie biscuits to the mixture, to give the concoction a malty note that caramelises into crispness around the edges. There’s also a dessert version suffused with smoky-sweet palm syrup.
Making hoppers in a Sri Lankan home is quite possibly the ultimate way to learn about this history of this hands-on dish, as I fast find out on the outskirts of Kandy in the tea-leaf-laced heart of the country. Here, in an eye-popping pink kitchen, the Kolitha family tell me how traditionally, hoppers were cooked at home over coconut-shell embers. The origins of the dish are a little mysterious, although American food writer and historian Gil Marks credits the original recipe to early Jewish settlers in southern India – around 2,000 years ago.
Today, the Kolitha family use the blue-hot flames of a gas stove to ensure the quick firing of the hopper batter in aluminium pans. They prepare the pancakes with deft-like precision while I watch, swirling one of the small, deep vessels over heat until batter spills over the sides, forming lacy, caramel-hued edges.
They then cover the pan to cook the pillowy portion that pools at its bottom – the spongy goodness where eggs are cracked to rest before being topped with black pepper. Coconut crunches in a mortar and pestle, fresh chilli is chopped, limes are squeezed. A quick clatter of crockery later, and the hoppers are stacked, steaming, in front of me. Fragrant, fresh and piping hot – this has to be the ultimate way to start the day.
GET IN THE KNOW
Got a sweet tooth? Sri Lankans do, too. Their dessert version of traditionally savoury hoppers sees a heaping of treacle, palm syrup or honey added to the batter. Best served with chopped bananas and milky tea.
An alcohol made from the sap of coconut flowers, toddy usually begins fermenting immediately after being collected by a palm ‘tapper’. Sweet and low in alcohol (around 4%), it’s often turned into jaggery (a type of sugar) or a stronger liquor.
Qatar Airways flies to Colombo, via Doha, from most Australian capital cities.
Check rates and other info at www.qatarairways.com
For more information about travelling around Sri Lanka, hit up the official tourism website.
New travel company Unmapped offers small-group tours around Sri Lanka, with the active itinerary tailored to solo adventurers in their 30s and 40s. The 12-night Sri Lanka’s Got Soul experience includes accommodation in boutique hotels, a guide, local transportation, entrance fees, many meals (some in local homes) and more.
It begins and ends in Colombo, and takes in tea country and historic sites, as well as visiting two elephant sanctuaries. The journey continues along Sri Lanka’s southern coast before returning to the capital. Prices start at AU$3,163.