Appam (appa) is a type of bowl-shaped thin pancake prepared with a fermented batter composed of rice (or rice flour) and coconut milk. It is very popular in the South of India, in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as in Sri Lanka. It is most often consumed for breakfast or for dinner.
Appam get their bowl shape from the small appachatti (small wok) in which they are cooked.
The name appam may come from the Sanskrit word apupa for “rice cake”, which is mentioned in the oldest Sanskrit book, the Rigveda. It may also come from the Tamil word appa for “father”, (plural: appam).
Renowned Indian food historian K. T. Achaya wrote that appam is mentioned in the Tamil Perumpanuru, a poetic work in the Pathinenmaelkanakku anthology of Tamil literature, belonging to the Sangam period corresponding to between 100 BC and 100 AD.
Appam (or hoppers in English) first originated in South India. It is similar to a dosa (rice or lentil pancake). Originally, it was prepared from a batter made of ground soaked rice and coconut milk. Since Basmati rice produces a rubbery texture, Indians typically use other long-grain varieties, including Sona Masuri and Ponni. Like for idiyappam (string hoppers), modern versions of the recipe use rice flour instead of soaked rice.
The Kerala version of the hopper is almost identical to Sri Lankan hoppers, with the exception that they often use palm toddy (kallu) to ferment the batter instead of yeast.
Appam is very popular among the Nasrani community of Kerala, in the South of India. The Nasrani, or Saint Thomas Christians (also called Syrian Christians, Malankara Nasrani, Nasrani Mappila), are an ethno-religious community of Malayali Syriac Christians from Kerala. Their origin can be traced to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century.
It is also a common staple for the three Indian Jewish communities: Cochin (Malabar), Mumbai, Calcutta.
Throughout India and Sri Lanka, appam is also called aapa, appa, aappam, chitau pitha, paddu, gulle eriyappa, and even arpone in Burmese. In Sri Lanka, it is often called by its English name, hoppers. In Indonesia, it is known as kue apem.
There are a multitude of popular versions of appam, as well as different condiments and accompaniments that are served with it depending on the region.
Plain appam or vellayappam are the standard bowl-shaped thin pancakes that are prepared with fermented rice flour. They do not include any topping or addition in the preparation, and are traditionally served with curries, spicy sambol or stews.
Palappam is prepared similarly to plain appam. However, a spoonful of thick sweetened coconut milk is added to the middle of the appam before it is cooked.
Kallappam is a type of appam where kallu (palm toddy) is used to ferment the batter instead of yeast or baking soda. Also, it is typically cooked on a griddle (kal) instead of an appachatti.
Egg hoppers are plain hoppers, to which an egg is broken in the middle of the appam before it is cooked.
Idiyappam (string hoppers in English) are made with rice dough that is squeezed through a noodle press to form a bird’s nest of thin rice vermicelli.
Honey hoppers are crispy pancakes that are cooked with kitul treacle, a sort of palm syrup. They are often topped with jaggery (palm sugar) before serving.
Chakka appam is a traditional rice cake made with ripe jackfruit, jaggery, coconut and homemade rice flour, that is steamed in banana leaves.
Kandarappam, which is popular in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, is a sweet dish prepared with rice, 4 different dals and jaggery. Using all 4 dals is supposed to bring good luck and the dish is often served during Hindu festivals.
In Indonesia, kue apem or kue apam is a traditional cake of steamed dough that is prepared with rice flour, coconut milk, yeast and palm sugar. The caramel-flavored cake is usually topped with grated coconut.
There are a few recipes that are popular within the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, including achappam, kuzhalappam, neyyappam, unni appam, pesaha appam and vattayappam.
Achappam, which are similar to kokis, are deep fried rosette cookies that are made with rice.
Kuzhalappam are fried thin crepes that are rolled in a tube shape like Italian cannoli.
Neyyappam, which are also popular in Sri Lanka, are prepared with rice flour, jaggery, and ghee. They consist in sweet rice-based snacks that are fried in ghee. Their name comes from the words neyy meaning “clarified butter” and appam meaning “pancake”.
Unni appam (or kuzhi appam) is a version of neyyappam with mashed ripe plantains or bananas added to the batter and fried in a ball shape. The batter is poured into a pan called appakarai (or appakaram), which is very similar to a Danish aebleskiver pan, and fried in ghee until they are brown.
Pesaha appam, a type of unleavened firm rice cake, is served by the Syrian Christians community on the night of Pesaha (Passover). They are dipped in a syrup called Pesaha Pal (Passover Coconut Milk) or palkurukku before being served. This tradition has also been followed by the Malabar Yehuden or Malabar Jews of Kerala.
Vattayappam is prepared with rice flour, sugar, and coconut. Vatta means round. It is a round steamed rice cake that is similar to Vietnamese bánh bò.
As you can attest, there are a multitude of versions of appam, with various shapes, textures and flavors. Whether prepared in the form of crepes, cakes or breads, these appam have been popular in certain communities of South India, Sri Lanka as well as Southeast Asia for centuries.
But back to our appam, which are called appa or hoppers in Sri Lanka. I decided to make egg hoppers and plain hoppers that I served with seeni sambol (onion sambol). I prepared them for a Candlemas party at friends. Candlemas, which typically falls in February, is a Christian Holy Day that commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Although I am Jewish, we have often followed the tradition of making crepes for Candlemas (French: chandeleur) when I was a kid growing up in France. As if we now need an occasion to eat crepes, my French friends and I continue this tradition here in Los Angeles.
My friends Myriam and Sylvain thus invited all of us for a crepe party. They prepared traditional French savory and sweet crepes, and I brought my appam batter to make hoppers on demand, just like a street food vendor. Although I stuck with the traditional egg hoppers, I gave in to special non traditional requests with toppings as diverse as cheese, mushrooms, or even Nutella! I kept some leftover batter and made more hoppers the day after. The batter, which had even more time to ferment was even better.
Appam were a huge success. They are so easy to prepare that I will absolutely make them again soon.
Appam (appa or hoppers) is a type of bowl-shaped thin pancake prepared with a fermented batter composed of rice (or rice flour) and coconut milk that is popular in South India and Sri Lanka.
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup water (lukewarm)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3½ cups rice flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 (13.5 oz.) cans coconut milk
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- Combine the yeast and water in a glass and set aside for about 10 minutes until it gets foamy.
- Combine salt, rice flour, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- Add the yeast mixture and stir until obtaining a homogeneous batter.
Cover, and set aside for at least 2 hours, in a warm place.
- Add the coconut milk and baking soda and mix until smooth.
- Cover and set aside for another hour.
- Batter should have the consistency of a thin crepe batter. If it is too thick, adjust by adding water or coconut milk.
- If using a non-stick hopper pan, slightly wipe the pan with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. If using a more traditional iron hopper pan, grease with a little more oil.
Heat the hopper pan over a high heat, then lower to medium.
- Add a ladle of hopper batter and immediately swirl the batter around the pan to cover the entire surface.
Add an egg in the center of the hopper to make an egg hopper (optional).
- Cover and cook until the batter sets, the edges are crispy (and the egg white has set), about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Gently slide the hopper out of the pan to a plate.