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Sri Lankan Hoppers: Appam across the Seas

The South Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu share not just geographical and historical similarity, but also their culinary heritage with the island nation of Sri Lanka. This has led to the evolution of two distinct food cultures both drawing on coconuts, rice and spices as their main stay. What is called ‘appam’ in South India takes on the name ‘hopper’ in Sri Lanka. Visually, both look similar though hoppers tend to be slightly taller. The preparation process is similar, involving a deft twirling of the pan to spread out the batter to form an intricate crispy lace wall, all the while retaining a soft mound in the center. If one is to add an egg to the center it becomes an egg hopper which can be paired with coconut chutney like sambol or lunumiris (dried red chili, onion, lemon juice and salt). While the appams in Kerala are culturally linked to the Syrian Christian kitchens and their stoneware appam chatti, Sri Lankan hoppers are prepared in a thachchiya.

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Even today, kitchens rely on the traditional cookware to ensure that the taste of the yesteryears is retained. The appam is a versatile item which can be had for breakfast, dinner or even as a snack. It can be paired with stew or had with hot coconut milk and sugar. Fresh palm toddy is an accompaniment favored by many, while coconut chutney also features on some plates.

The origin of this staple breakfast item is ambiguous, but food historian Gil Marks opines that the Jewish community in the cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Kochi are the creators of this delicacy. It then spread across the regions in the Indian Ocean as a result of migration under colonial history. K T Achaya on the other hand mentions as to how the ancient Tamil work ‘Perumpanuru’ talks of appam thus pointing to its prevalence in the early Tamil region, and thus of its origin as being from the southern Indian belt.

Regardless of its origin, appam/hopper has taken on an international character, retaining its original form as well as evolving by blending with other cuisines. The fact that one has twitter wars over its supremacy and that it can be found on the streets of London as a favorite stand testament to the fact appams are here to stay.