Monday, August 18, 2008

Paalappam – Cleopatra of Kerala Cuisine!

Well, mine is not a Cleopatra yet……Hopefully I will become an expert to bring her home one day :)

Paalappam is every Keralite’s pride and it is the classic breakfast from the land of coconuts. A hybrid between French crêpes and Ethiopian enjera, Paalappam has a fermented pancake like texture in the centre with a beautiful lace around and to me, it is a symphony in rice flour and coconut milk!

It tastes heavenly….it has a texture that melts in your mouth…….and it has a charm and beauty that comes with its crispy paper thin laced edges which equals a bridal veil. This classic has even paved way for some popular local adages like this one below:

A marriage match-maker to boy’s mother: Nalla tharavaattukaara……Paalappathinte niramulla penkutiyaa….! ( Girl is from a well-known family…..she is as fair as Paalappam..!)

This quintessential breakfast of Kerala is thickly woven into our lives and taste memories that it is very common that you will find yourself amidst a discussion like this one here:

Menu planning for a betrothal or marriage reception between family members:
Uncle: Pinne…..nammal first-course entha kodukkande ennu theerumanicho? ( Did we decide on the first-course?)
Father: mm…appavum stew-um aayalo…? ( How about Appam & Stew?)
Mother: oru cutlet koode vechalo? …….pinne veg & non veg stew prathekam parayanam ( How about a piece of cutlet too? ……also we should specifically order for both veg and non veg stew)

Making Paalappam is an art… is about ingredients, skill, technique and timing. Right from the quality of the coconut milk used, to the temperature in the room, to the fermentation, to the swirling of the pan, everything plays quite a vital role in bringing out those perfect Paalappam and since the word ‘perfection’ has its own definitions to each home cooks, it is very easy to listen to one of these conversations:

A mid-morning telecon between mother and aunt:
Aunt: aaah……breakfast kazhinjo ? ennu entha undakkyiye? ( Had breakfast? What did you make for breakfast?)
Mother: ohh….ennathe Appam kazhinja pravashyathe pole nannaayilla….( Oh….Appam was not as perfect as that of last time..)

Is it Paalappam or Velleyappam? Honestly, I don’t know! I don’t know if there is any difference at all or if the difference is based on the method of preparation. I have seen people using it interchangeably and noticed that those from the northern part of Kerala, call it Velleyappam and sometimes those who prepare the batter by grinding raw rice and grated coconut also use the same name. Appam seems to be the shortest and widely accepted nomenclature. Well, the recipe being featured here is Paalappam for sure as the word suggests (Paal means milk) this recipe creates the batter by primarily blending rice flour and coconut milk and use yeast for fermentation. Please note that I am not yet an expert in this area and this is my grandma’s technique and recipe and the proportion I have suggested here is what works for me, based on the weather zone I am in and the cooking conditions I am given. Take this recipe as a framework and make changes to suit your conditions. Also note that the amount of yeast used here also varies depending on the room temperature and quality of yeast.

Hardware Pre-requisite: You need ‘Appa-chatti’/ ‘Appam-pan’ which is a round pan with a concave centre and wide sloped edges. Check the model here.

Ingredients: (Serves Two Adults)

For ‘Thari kurukku’/Semolina pudding
  • 2 tsp rava/semolina/cream of wheat
  • ¼ cup water
For proofing yeast:
  • ½ tsp active dry yeast ( I use Fleischmann’s active dry yeast)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2tsp sugar
For batter:
  • 1 ½ cups rice flour
  • 1 ¾ cups thin coconut milk/randaam-paal
  • ½ cup thick coconut milk/ thani-paal
  • Salt to taste
  • Make ‘Thari kurukku’: In a shallow pan pour water and rava/semolina and cook in medium heat till it is fully cooked, soft and holds together in the consistency of baby food, a semi thick and runny semolina pudding. Keep it aside until it turns cold.
  • Proof Yeast: Warm water in a microwave for 15 seconds. Add sugar and yeast; dissolve both the ingredients in this warm water and keep the mixture in a warm place for 15-20 minutes, or until it inflates and foams, creating a ‘dome of foam’, on top of the mixture. I usually keep the bowl inside the microwave itself, undisturbed until it foams.
  • Make the batter: Pick a stainless steel or glass bowl big enough to hold double the quantity of batter as during the fermentation process, the batter rises well and it should not over flow from the bowl. In the chosen stainless steel or glass bowl, pour 1 ¾ cups thin coconut milk/randaam-paal and 1 ½ cups rice flour; stir well and mix it into a smooth fine paste like batter, using your hands or wooden spoon and at this stage add ‘thari kurukku’/semolina pudding and blend till it is fully combined with the base mixture . To make this phase easier and less time consuming, I take the easy route of using electric blender; first pour the thin coconut milk and then add the rice flour. With a wooden spoon or spatula, stir well and then turn on the blender for 60-90 seconds or till it forms into a nice paste and then add ‘thari kurukku’/semolina pudding and spin for another 30 -40 seconds. Now pour this back to the big stainless steel or glass container. At this stage, add the yeast mixture and lastly, pour thick coconut milk/thani-paal and blend gently and combine well. If you are using the electric blender, do not add yeast to the blender; add it only after you pour it to the bowl and mix it very gently. Also if batter is too thick, causing problems to the blender, you may add the thick coconut milk in the first stage itself, along with thin consistency milk.
  • Fermentation: Once the batter is ready, close it with a lid or plate and then leave in a warm place for overnight or 6-8 hours. The weather zone I am in compels me to heat the oven at 350F for 10 minutes and then switch it off; wait for 30-40 minutes or till it is warm enough to hold my hands inside the oven without any discomfort. At this temperature, keep your batter covered for the prescribed time. By the end of this process, the batter will rise-almost double and you will notice thick foam like ballooning on top and a sharp fermented smell, something like toddy. Ideally, this should be the stage when you check after the prescribed time but if you notice that the batter has risen and then fallen, just ignore it as the end product still comes out well for me, atleast in my case :D
  • After the fermentation, bring the bowl to the kitchen counter and sprinkle salt to taste and stir well and let it sit for another 30-40 minutes before you start cooking.
  • Make Paalappam: Heat ‘Appa-chatti’ or the non-stick ‘Appam-pan’ at medium. Hold your hand above the pan (ofcourse, not on the pan!) and see if it is medium hot. The pan should not be too hot or less hot. Ladle some batter –around ¼ cup- on the centre of ‘Appa-chatti’/ ‘Appam-pan’ and immediately swirl the pan (holding your hands on both the side handles) in a clockwise motion, spreading the batter to the sides of the pan and when you complete one full circle and bring the leftover batter directly to the centre where you poured it earlier. Swirl the pan only once, else you will not get the customary ‘lace’ of Paalappam. Also swirling is the only way to spread the batter; you should not follow any other method. Once swirling is done, keep the lid and let it cook for 2-5 minutes and at the end of it, the ‘lace’ would be crisp and paper-thin and the centre should be cooked well. If you are using a non –stick pan, the sides will come off easily and remove Paalappam to a plate.
  • Cooking time differs depending on the material of the pan, whether non-stick or cast –iron, as well as the heat form, whether flame or electric coil. Flame is the ideal situation because of the shape of ‘Appa-chatti’/ ‘Appam-pan’ as flames touch the entire sides of pan, giving beautiful lace to Paalappam but electric coil also gives satisfactory results like the ones in the picture. If you are using cast –iron pan, do rub some oil with a cotton ball before pouring batter each time.
  • Serve with either of the dishes given below. Even a drizzle of freshly squeezed coconut mik, sweetened with sugar or just a sprinkle of sugar makes this beauty melt in your mouth!
Ideal matches for Paalappam :

Potato Stew Beef Stew Fish Molee Kerala Chicken Stew Duck Roast

It also pairs well with :

Chicken Roast - Kuttanadan Style Beef Stew Prawns Stir Fry Njandu Varutharachathu Mutton Fry

I will update this post with a pictorial at the earliest but right now I am unable to as our camera conked out last weekend and had to dig out this picture from my last years snapshots in the hard disk, since I have been getting several requests for this recipe and did not want to delay it any further.

Beginners please keep trying and experiment with the measurements to suit your cooking conditions and weather zone, in particular. Those who prefer golden ‘laces’ may add one more tablespoon sugar but such result is best accomplished on a gas flame stove. This is one dish that is considered a lottery, even by the experienced hands, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get it ‘perfect’ the very first time. This is one dish that requires lots of skill and patience and above all, a lot of luck too and you have a lifetime to perfect it :)


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