She was the epitome of a perfect homemaker who made perfect Swiss rolls, cakes and cookies and sent the samples over in plates covered with dainty crocheted doilies.
Never a hair out of place, she wore crisp starched cotton sarees all the time and was ever so house-proud. She would warmly welcome anyone home at anytime, even when we caught up in the stairwell, and offer them golden banana chips and well-wrought acchapams (roce cookies) she had made just that afternoon.
Even her kids were the most obedient boys, their rooms were spick and span, the beds always made (did they ever loll in bed - or even sleep, for that matter?). The volumes of “Tell me How” and “Tell me Why” stayed tightly packed in their shelves, the boys’ toys all basketed and their 1000 piece puzzles still very much together.
Was it any wonder that this flawless woman, Sophie – my neighbour in Oman introduced me to the most perfect lace appams I have ever seen?
No, not even in the impeccable Syrian Christian household in Kanjirapalli where we spent a wonderful few days. Nor in the supposedly best appam place in Kochi.
“ I made appams and eshtu,” Sophie says one Friday morning, flashing me a bright smile, as effervescent and ethereal as the discuses.
Eshtu is Malyalee colloquialism for stew.
Friday was the Arab Sunday.
Well, not any more, I am told.
I thank her, but am unsure if I should invite her in or get rid of her so we can attack the appams while they are still crisp on the lacy edges…
Fortuitously, she chooses to leave and we tucked into the filigree edged appams.
There is something irrepressibly exciting about unexpectedly receiving a covered dish from a neighbour. It’s the taste of someone else’s cooking, the serendipitous discovery of new dishes, an opportunity to learn something new, an affirmation of your own superiority, the license to eat all the oil and heat you never dare to use, the chance to censure the cook.
But Sophie’s dishes were always a class apart from those that came in the standard steel plate (covered with a napkin) that I always returned filled with much better stuff than the salver had delivered.
Her eshtu has feisty spices soused with coconut cream; the sauce so smooth and the vegetables chunky. The appams, delicate as heirloom French lace, with raised soft centre as otherworldly as a UFO.
The stack of appams depletes and the stew is all but slurped out of the bowls…
That heavenly calm is replicated each time we make appams, 20 years to date.
As it did, last Sunday morning, when in celebration of the long weekend the appams once again nestled amongst the lapping stew in our tummies.
This is the Chettinad variety of appams, for it has the dals as opposed to the Kerala one which has only rice, yeast and coconut. Toddy is also used as a starter.
4 cups raw rice
1 cup urad dal
¼ cup chana dal
1 cup cooked rice
1 tsp methi seeds
¾ cup thick coconut milk
½ tsp dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
To make the batter
Wash and soak the rice. Wash the dals and methi and soak them for about 4-5 hours. Grind the rice and dals and methi with a little water into a thick smooth paste.
Develop the yeast in a little warm water and sugar and add it to the batter. Add the coconut milk and mix thoroughly and keep covered in a warm place for 4-5 hours or overnight till it ferments and rises.
You may knock back the fermented batter and it will spring back with renewed vim in no time. Add salt just before making appams.
To make the appams
Heat a non-stick appam chati or tava, a very shallow wok with a lid. Once hot, lower the heat and rub the insides with a paper towel soaked in oil or a half onion dipped in oil.
Using a standard soup ladle with an upright handle, pour a ladleful in the centre of the appam tava and using both the hands hold the tava by the handles and twirl the pan so that the batter swirls around in a wider circle.
Once you achieve the perfect circle, set the tava back on the stove, so while the batter sticks to the sides, any excess batter will flow down the slopes and settle at the bottom, where it will rise and create that crater like centre. The batter that has stuck to the sides is naturally thinned and forms a perfect lace like pattern with perforations with the cooked froth.
Cover the tava with a lid and increase the heat for a minute or so, then lower the heat.
The appam is cooked within a couple of minutes. The sides come loose on their own and you can easily lift the appam with a spatula.
My appam tava is very good, so apart from the first time, I don’t need to use any oil. But if you must, drizzle a few drops of oil just before covering the appam.
Serve hot with vegetable eshtu.
Or, with some coconut milk laced with brown sugar.