May 20, 2015
Updated December 2020
Medieval Indian Ocean traders of South India forged ties at home and beyond and transported their culture to new locations through reproduction and reinterpretation of the familiar. Along with trade and commerce there was also the exchange of food ingredients and culinary techniques between Southeast Asia and India. Local ingredients and techniques got incorporated, and recipes evolved over time.
India has a very old tradition of spicy, saucy dishes called curry. According to renowned Indian food historian K.T. Achaya Kari, a word from the southern Indian language Tamil, was widely in use by 1500 B.C., if not earlier. They were carried eastward to Burma, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, and elsewhere by coastal traders, artisans, and monks.
Curry is not the only type of dish the immigrant Indians introduced to Southeast Asia. Two of the most common ingredients in the cuisines of South India and Southeast Asia are two native crops, rice, and coconut. There are numerous dishes – from snacks to appetizers to main courses to desserts – prepared with these two ingredients. Rice and coconut-based dishes like appam, idiyappam and puttu of south India, have evolved into various street foods popular all-over Southeast Asia. Sangam Poems, ancient Tamil literary works dating back to 300 BC to 300 AD, describe appam and idiyappam sold along the seashore by vendors of snack foods. Sweet puttu is a special offering at many south Indian temples.
It is unclear exactly when they reached Southeast Asia during the trading days. In Southeast Asia, recipes for these dishes have evolved into a wide array of popular street foods – Putu piring, putu bamboo, putu mayam, putu ayu, khanom krok – the list goes on.
History of idiyappam, appam and puttu
South Indian rice and coconut-based dishes – appam, idiyappam (also called noolputtu), and puttu go a very long way in history. They were very popular in ancient Tamil literary (which included Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and parts of Karnataka). Both idiyappam and puttu were steam cooked and appam was cooked in a clay or iron pot with a curved bottom over a wood burning stove. According to eminent Indian food historian K.T. Achaya both idiyappam and appam were dishes sold by kaazhiyar and kuuviyar – vendors of snack foods – on the seashore; they are graphically described in ancient Sangam poems (dating back to a period from 300 BC to 300 AD.) Perumpanuru, Mathuraikanchi and Silappathikaram. Sangam poems describe delicate appams that look like honeycombs in the middle.
Steam cooking has a very long history in India. Brahat Samhitha of Varahamihira (early sixth century) mentions steam cooked food as “svinna bhakshya” food cooked using the method of svedanam or steaming. Jain literary works in Kannada language –Vaddaradhane of Sivakotiacharya (920 AD) and Soopa Shastra of Mangarasa (1508 AD) – both mention steam cooking by placing food tied in a piece of cloth or placed in wicker baskets over a wide mouthed vessel in which water is boiled.
Historical Recipes for idiyappam, appam and puttu
Idiyappam, fresh steam cooked fine rice noodles, were traditionally made by soaking and grinding rice into a very fine batter. This batter is mixed with salt and a tablespoon of oil and cooked over a stove to remove all the water. It is stirred constantly while cooking so that no lumps form. After a few minutes of cooking the batter thickens and comes together into a ball of soft dough, it is cooled and then filled in a wooden or metal press with many small holes at the bottom. The noodles are squeezed out in a circular pattern on to a steamer plate with tiny holes at the bottom lined with clean wet cloth and steamed for five to six minutes. Alternately the soft, cooked dough is steamed first and then the noodles are squeezed out using the press.
Appam, a circular pancake with a thick spongy center and lacey brown edges, was made with toddy fermented batter of rice and coconut, cooked on a well-seasoned clay dish with curved bottom. In old days both idiyappam and appam were served with sweetened coconut milk or milk.
Puttu is the general term for a variety of steamed rice and coconut dishes, both savory and sweet, from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and the hill district of Karnataka. In old times savory puttu was steamed in bamboo tubes with pierced disc at the bottom, fixed tightly over a wide mouthed pot in which water was boiled. The sweet version was steam cooked by tying the ingredients in a thin wet cloth or wicker basket and placing it over a wide mouthed vessel in which water was boiled. In Tamil Nadu, the sweet version made with jaggery is temple food offering. It is an important food offering during the nine-day Navarathri festival. Sweet puttu was also made when a girl child attained puberty and the coconut palm blossomed for the first time.
Centuries later, the recipes for these three dishes have remained practically unchanged in South India. Fine milled rice flour for idiyappam had replaced the traditional method of soaking and grinding rice. Sweetened coconut milk or milk is replaced by coconut milk-based stews made with potato, mixed vegetables, or chicken in Kerala. In Tamil Nadu cooked rice noodles are also broken up and seasoned in several different ways to make sevai. These include lemon sevai, tamarind sevai pepper sevai, curd sevai, and sweet sevai. In Tamil Nadu coconut milk sweetened with sugar or sodhi kolambu, a vegetable stew prepared with vegetables and coconut milk, a specialty of Tirunelveli, are served with both idiyappam and appam. In the hill country of Karnataka fresh rice noodles are called nooputtu and served with chicken curry.
These days instead of using bamboo tubes for steaming, puttu is cooked in metal tubes fitted over a pot or pressure cooker. It is also made in hollowed out coconut shells. In Kerala savory puttu is traditionally served with brown chickpeas curry, finger bananas and fried pappadams, Newer versions of puttu include puttu made with various grains like wheat, pearl millet, finger millet as well as fish puttu, meat puttu, moringa leaves puttu, Jackfruit puttu – the list goes on.
Misconceptions about the Origin of these Ancient Dishes
Unfortunately several misconceptions are widely prevalent about these dishes in India. Some cookbooks, chefs and food fairs in recent years have popularized a myth that these ancient dishes were the contributions of the Portuguese and the Dutch traders to South Indian cuisine. An article published in the Hindu, about an event at the Cochin College in 2011 quoted a presenter “puttu and stew has its origins in Portuguese fare while appam in Dutch and noolputtu (idiyappam) is of Sri Lankan origin“. I beg to differ.
The Portuguese arrived in India in 1498 AD. Appam, idiyappam and puttu were part of South Indian food culture centuries before that. The Portuguese certainly introduced various culinary ingredients to India; chili pepper being the most important contribution. Traditional Portuguese cuisine is based on regional ingredients with an emphasis on seafood. Coconut and rice are not primary ingredients in this European cuisine. In terms of the coconut milk-based stew of Kerala; the Portuguese brought chili peppers and potatoes were incorporated into the coconut milk traditionally served with idiyappam and appam – a perfect example of how Indian cuisine embraces new food ingredients into its dishes. Puttu was traditionally steamed bamboo tubes in South India. Bamboo is not endemic to Europe and it was introduced into Europe from Japan and China only in the early nineteenth century. Dutch traders arrived in India almost two centuries after the Portuguese. Various meats and milk products are the prominent ingredients in Dutch cuisine. Dutch puffed pancakes may be similar in appearance to appam, but they are made with white flour, eggs, milk, and butter.
Variations in Southeast Asia
Along with South Indian trade and commerce with Southeast Asia food ingredients, recipes and culinary techniques also reached these ancient shores. As recipes for idiyappam, appam and puttu evolved over time, local ingredients and techniques got incorporated and developed into a wide array of popular Southeast Asian street foods. Interestingly Southeast Asian versions have very similar names, basic ingredients, and cooking methods.
Variations of Idiyappam
Steamed rice noodles are called putu mayam in Malaysia. It is made freshly ground rice flour. The flour is then either steamed or roasted. Then the flour is mixed with water and salt into a thick paste. Sometimes water infused with pandanus leaves is used to make the thick paste. It imparts green color and fragrance to the rice mix. It is then pressed through a wooden press which has holes at the bottom, creating long, stringy noodles. The noodles are squeezed out in a circular pattern onto a steamer basket, sometimes lined with banana leaves. They are then steamed for about three to five minutes. These steam cooked rice noodles are served with coconut and palm sugar called gula Melaka. In Penang there is a version of putu mayam which incorporates mustard seeds with rice flour, giving it a brownish color. Putu mayam is also called Putu mayang in Indonesia. Once cooked, they are served with palm sugar or grated coconut. It may be served as a savory dish along with coconut chutney or meat curry. Some Indonesian version adds tapioca flour and coconut milk to the mixture. In Sri Lanka rice noodles are called string hoppers and they are served with coconut sauce called kiri hodi (similar to Kerala stew) or coconut sambol. They are sometimes made with wheat flour also. Chopped up rice noodles are sautéed with chicken, vegetables, and spices to make string hopper biriyani or string hopper pulav.
Variations of Appam
Indonesian coconut pancakes called serabi made with rice flour, baking soda, egg yolks, coconut milk, sugar, and salt are quite similar to south Indian appam. Serabi is served with kinca, a coconut and palm sugar sauce, colored green with pandanus leaves.
Malaysian Apam Balik is a small sweet crispy pancake filled with sugar, peanuts, and creamy sweetcorn. Sri Lankan Hoppers are also made in the same way as appam in South India. Sri Lanka has a variation of hoppers called egg hoppers; it is made by breaking an egg over the hopper batter spread on the pan, covering, and cooking till the egg is cooked.
Ah-boh, a popular street food found in Rangoon today is quite similar to the appam. It is not clear if the Ah-boh reached Burma during the early trading days or with the Indian immigration in the more recent past (During the early nineteenth century Naattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu migrated to various Southeast Asian countries for establishing their money lending business. Rangoon in Burma (Myanmar) had a large settlement of these money lenders). Ah-boh is made in an iron pot with a curved bottom with a batter made with rice flour, sugar, salt water and baking soda. After spreading the batter inside the pot, it is filled with coconut milk thickened with rice flour, sugar, and baking soda. It is then covered and cooked until the filling has set.
Variations of Puttu
Putu bambu is a Malaysian cake originating from the Tamil sweet puttu, steamed in bamboo pipes.Roasted rice flour is mixed with pandan leaf infused water and loosely filled halfway into the bamboo tube. Coconut and jaggery mix are added and then covered with more rice flour mix and steamed in bamboo pipes. There is another Malaysian variation of putu bambu called Putu Piring. It is made with rice flour, coconut, and palm sugar (gula melaka) instead of jaggery. There is yet another variation in Malaysia’s east coast called putu herba. In putu herba the palm sugar filling is mixed with ground fenugreek seeds that give this putu their interesting flavor. Indonesian kue Putu or Putu Bambu consists of palm sugar wrapped with rice flour, often colored green with pandanus leaves. It is cooked by steaming it inside cuts of bamboo pipes. Kue putu sounds quite similar to kuzal puttu, a term sometimes used in South India for puttu cooked in bamboo pipes. Sri Lankans pittu recipe is exactly the same as Kerala savory puttu. In Sri Lanka it is served with katta sambol, a spicy meat or fish curry and coconut milk. Thai khao lam is a rice cake made by steaming rice mixed with water and salt in a bamboo tube. More elaborate recipes use coconut milk and black beans.
In the Philippines puto is the most popular kakanin (umbrella term for sweets made of glutinous rice and coconut milk), a steamed rice cake traditionally white in color, although it can also be tinged green or purple when flavored with pandan or ube. Nearly every town has its own unique variety of Puto. The regional variants of puto get their names from either their appearance or their most notable feature. Puto bumbong is purple-colored ground glutinous rice, cooked in bamboo tubes in special steamers and served with grated coconut and sugar. It is not clear if these recipes were influenced by South Indian cuisine. However, the name puto is very similar to puttu. The Indianized empires Sri-Vijaya and Majapahit had commercial and cultural relations with the Philippines and during the British occupation in the seventeenth century many army privates from Tamil Nadu arrived in the Philippines. When the British withdrew, many of them refused to leave because most had taken Filipino brides. They settled east of Metro Manila.
Besides these three rice cakes another steamed sweet cake – modakam – made of rice, coconut and jaggery also has its myriad versions in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian Influence on South Indian cuisine
Southeast Asian dishes and culinary techniques also made inroads into Indian cuisine. Many medieval Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia had religious, cultural, trade, and diplomatic relations with South India. It is believed that some of the Indonesian Hindu kings visited India in search of suitable brides. A contingent of cooks accompanied them. These cooks are believed to have introduced the technique of fermenting, and then steam cooking, to South Indian cuisine. Fermented food was quite popular in Southeast Asia and one of the popular dishes was kedli.
Idli, the popular South Indian breakfast staple is one of the dishes that evolved over the centuries. Earlier variations of idli were made with urad dal batter only. According to K.T.Achaya, the very first time idli is mentioned in 920 AD in the Kannada work Vaddaradhane of Sivakotiacharya. It was called iddalike and made from an urad dal batter only, which was neither fermented nor steamed to fluffiness. It was considered one of the eighteen dishes a lady should serve her guests.
The eleventh century text Lokopakara mentions idli made with a thick batter of urad dal mixed with the clear liquid that remains at the top of yogurt, asafetida, cumin seeds, coriander and black pepper. batter. The 12th century work Manasollasa mentions iddarika made with fermented urad batter spread into lumps and cooked. The process of mixing urad dal and rice grains and fermenting the mixture seems to be later innovation.Originally prepared with fermented urad dal, idli was later modified by adding rice to the batter to fasten the fermentation process.
While living in Rangoon Naattukkottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu developed the recipe for Rangoon Puttu substituting white rice with semolina. They also developed various South Indian recipes using locally grown Burmese black sticky rice. Today these black sticky rice recipes are popular in their home state Tamil Nadu.
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