a son’s love for his mother’s cooking led him to setting up an eatery that is now three outlets-strong and where those in the know flock to for her specialty appam.
like a pretty doily about the size and shape of a small bowl punctuated by tiny craters, the appam is thin and crispy around the edges while its centre is thick yet soft like a chinese honeycomb cake. ever since i chanced upon this south indian ‘pancake’ at a food court that sits next to a manmade lake located a short drive from a pewter factory, it has become one of my favourite day starters. at this particular food stall, owned and run by a indian muslim family, the appam is made upon order and served with fresh coconut milk. the latter, creamy and slightly salty, enhances the aroma and mild sweetness of the former so you get a well balanced combination of textures and flavours in every mouthful.
“that’s my mother’s specialty,” owner mohammed khurshid told me with a smile. “even though we have three outlets now, she only helps out at this original stall and so the appam is only available here.” in fact, all of the dishes that are on the menu are his mother, mariam binti wan noor’s, recipes and the kind of food that khurshid grew up eating. when he thought of opening an eatery, naturally mum’s cooking came to mind. the location was an easy choice too – a stone’s throw away from their family home, so it’s easy for mariam to get to each morning. she’s usually there by 4.30am in her vibrant saree, cooking and prepping for the breakfast crowd.
there are typically two groups of customers who flock here each morning: the first batch arrives as early as 6am, after performing their morning prayers at the nearby mosque. the second is more varied and scattered throughout their opening hours (6am-12 noon) and include regulars from the surrounding housing areas, their neighbours as well as housewives after their daily rounds at the open-air street market around the corner, where stalls sell fresh produce and cooked food under shady trees.
besides appam, their stall is also popular for their namesake chapatti as well as thosai, idli, puri, vadai and sugee balls, and that’s just for the morning session; the stall re-opens in the evening (6pm-12 midnight) to offer more hearty fare like nasi briyani. the appam, however, is served for breakfast only and on busy days, they could run out by 10.30am or so. “many of our customers do come specifically for the appam,” khurshid revealed, adding that there are actually many variants of it, naming the famous nalla’s appa kadai in india as a good example of the limitless ingredients and combinations one can add to an appam. nalla’s, which has multiple branches across and outside of india, was where khurshid got his appam fix when he was away from home and studying in kodaikanal.
at his stall, he decided to offer just three styles of appam: biasa, telur and manis. what some customers don’t realise is that there are a number of options to those three variants. the appam manis, for example, can be made with either white or brown sugar. the appam telur can be made by either mixing an egg into the batter before frying (the resulting appam is extra fluffy and aromatic), or added later so that you essentially get an appam biasa cradling an over easy, its golden yolk still runny.
i asked mariam where she learnt to make this tamil nadu delicacy. “i’ve been making appam since i was a little girl, it’s something we always ate at home,” she answered while showing me how it’s done. the thick, milky batter – which contains coconut milk, rice flour, a bit of sugar, a pinch of salt and bicarbonate soda – is ladled onto a hot appachatti, small woks designed specifically for frying appam. she picked up the handles and carefully gave the little wok a twirl to ensure that the batter coated the entire surface. the wok is then covered and let to sit over a low fire for several minutes. the appam is done when the edges have browned slightly and the bubbles on the surface have reduced to indentations.
eating it dipped in coconut milk is how mariam has always enjoyed it, but if you prefer a savoury twist to your appam, just ask for any of the curries (she cooks some 15 varieties or more daily) or try it with the coconut chutney that’s typically eaten with idli. the easygoing mother and son are happy to meet customers’ requests. “tak ada hal (it’s not a problem),” as mariam is fond of saying. they are generous about it too; whenever i do a takeaway from their stall, i always end up with more than enough coconut milk, curries or chutneys for my appam.
when it comes to the coconut milk, mariam is adamant that it must be fresh and squeezed by hand. “itu paket punya santan, tak boleh pakai punya (packet coconut milk just does not cut it),” she insisted. freshness is, in fact, an important focus at their stall; besides making most dishes from scratch, cooking everything fresh daily and on premise, khurshid pointed out that their food contains no msg and that “it is also our aim to cater to diabetics and those who are watching their cholesterol level. we noticed that many of our customers tend to be in the over-40 age group and so are more health conscious and selective of what they eat.”
if you’re looking for something light and that’s not too sweet or oily, the appam will make an ideal meal. i enjoy it simply because it’s delicious and comforting as it reminds me of my childhood, when the appam was more easily available and done properly, not reduced to the paper-thin versions that are common at the pasar malam these days. i would be happy to eat mariam’s appam for every meal but am just as contented to start my days with it.
*want to breakfast on these pretty ‘doilies’? email me your secret eat at firstname.lastname@example.org and i'll let you in on where to find this southern indian delight
this article first appeared in crave and the malay mail online on 13 july 2014