Hoppers: Sri Lanka’s national obsession

10 Feb

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The hopper is a delicacy that Sri Lankans all over the country are familiar with. It is one of those unifying dishes that all Sri Lankans can lay claim to as part of their culture, though there are certain cultural variations in some places.

Where though did the dish originate from? It is known in nearly all parts of India (which has several more variations of the Appa, than Sri Lanka) as well as in countries where Indian and Sri Lankan diasporas have established themselves, such as Malaysia.

The South Indian hopper, especially from Kerala is almost identical to Sri Lankan hoppers. Except that instead of yeast, they use toddy to ferment the rice flour batter. Appam is apparently a common name for rice flour cakes / pancakes of all sorts in India and so they have several innovative versions of the appam that we would not recognize over here such as unniappam and neyappam (deep fried rice cakes). A more common version we do have over here is the idiappam (stringhoppers) – the noodle-like streamed rice-cakes popular in both Kerala and Sri Lanka.

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As to the hopper itself, which people can lay claim to its origins is a mystery although a wide range of cultures enjoy it as part of their cuisine. It is certainly an Eastern dish (now), rather than a Western one, but according to the Jewish food writer and historian, Gil Marks, the three separate Jewish communities of Cochin, Mumbai and Calcutta in India have a variation of the hopper as a staple dish amongst them. He therefore speculates that it might have originated with them, in the Indian subcontinent.

Sri Lankan Appa

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The appa, as we know it in Sri Lanka is a thin, crisp pancake made of fermented rice flour batter. A short search on the internet for its recipe yields a wide variety of results, even within Sri Lanka. The measurements of rice, flour, sugar, salt, yeast all differ – and some have different ingredients. There are variations for example where toddy or beer are used, coconut water used instead of water, urad dhal added, and so on.

But whether it is a town in the South or North or anywhere else in Sri Lanka – most Sri Lankans can be sure of one thing; finding a kade that has a cook deftly making hoppers one after the other. He is usually not even waiting for the clientele. He is sure of the clientele. This is a hopper loving nation and it shows in the number of boutiques that have sprung up, just to cater to our seemingly insatiable appetite for it.

A typical hopper-loving Sri Lankan, one of my favourite pastimes is watching these hopper-chefs in action. Kilted out chefs in all their pristine white formality on TV shows would be hard-pressed to compete with these salt-of-the-earth local ‘chefs’ for finesse and style.

Their clothes and overall personality are not that of white collar professionals. The backdrop against which they work by the roadside are dingy little boutiques. They don’t have the conscious showmanship of professional Chefs on television. But they way they deftly work three pans on a gas stove at a time, pouring in the merest whiff of batter to form a paper-thin crust on the pan, cracking an egg or pouring sweetened coconut milk, as needed at the behest of the customer, and making sure that all the appas are out on a plate without being over or under-cooked, is a feat of skill that many hopper lovers enjoy watching.

To love hoppers is an inherent Sri Lankan trait. So apparently is making it. I have never yet come across any of the young men at the kades making it, who do it with less than perfection.

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