It never ceased to astonish my mother that I could make appam and stew twice or even thrice a week. I told her that mixies and shortcut methods have made this once considered delicacy a routine and common item on the normal menu of even a busy working housewife.
But, I asked her, are my appams anything like what u used to make, amma? Yours were incredibly delicious! Amma was not one for gloating over her culinary competence, and so replied that they were all the same.
But they were not the same. Starting from the process to the method to the final product, it was a very very different ball game.
In her days, making appams was an event. It was usually a breakfast item, though once in a way, it was served for lunch too. The event would start the day before with her announcement that the next day’s breakfast would be appam. Her helpers’ faces would fall and they would look at each other meaningfully. She would then take raw rice, measure the required quantity, put it in a muram (large bamboo tray) and give it to the youngest help in the kitchen – ‘cos her eyesight was the best - for cleaning. Amma would hover around her to see if she is doing a neat(literally!) job of it. Once the cleaning is done, amma would take the muram from her for inspection, and with her inferior eye sight would pick out small stones and black rice and put them one by one into the girl’s extended palm. Then it would be handed back to her to be washed thoroughly and soaked for 30 minutes and then drained. ‘Wash it well’ she would say several times while the maid would nod with a long suffering look.
Then the preparation would start for pounding the rice. The oral (stone with a hollow, used for pounding) cleaning would be ordered and amma would be around to see it was done properly. After the maid was done with cleaning, she would look at amma who would nod in approval but nevertheless take a clean towel and run it into the hollow of the oral – just for her satisfaction. The maid dared not snigger or make any remarks.
And then the pounding would start. Amma refused to leave the work area where this activity took lace. She’d hang around with a hawk’s eye to make sure the maid did not scratch her head or put her finger into her ear. The maids knew her well enough to grin and bear any itching or discomfort in those parts of their anatomy while she was around. When the first round(trip, as the maids call it) of pounding was over, amma sat on her low stool and would herelf sift the rice flour through a fine sieve. She didn’t like entrusting that to anyone else, cos none had her immaculate hands. I remember, as a small child, I once ran up to her asking if I cold sift the flower. She told me my hands were not clean enough. Promised to allow me the next time after she’d cleaned my hands to her satisfaction!!!!! I didn’t ask her the next time. Didn’t quite fancy the idea of getting my skin scrubbed off.
Once the pounding and sifting were over, amma would take over completely. She would make a porridge out of the rough rice flour left over after sifting, make a soft dough with it and the fine rice flour after heating the latter mildly, mix yeast and keep the dough overnight.
Next day, early morning, she would extract coconut milk from grated coconut, add it to the dough to make a thin lose appam mix, add sugar and salt to taste and keep it aside for an hour or so.
Then the preparation would start for the actual appam making. She had a quiet corner which she always used for the purpose. The kerosene stove was placed on the flor in that corner and she would sit besides it on her low stool, after she had taken care of details like the big steel tray to keep the hot appams, the lidded vessel to keep the appams after they cooled etc. The area was cordoned off with make shift objects to prevent people(particularly childrem) from coming too close to the stove. The appam manufacture would start – one ladleful of the mix poured into the paalappachatti(wok meant for making appam) giving out a hissing sound, the wok taken up, twisted round so as to spread the mix into complete circle and then replaced over the fire and closed with a lid to trap the steam inside the pan. After a minute, the lid is removed and, lo and behold! There lay the appam ready to be eaten with crisp lacy edges and spongy centre. The production was fast and soon appams would start piling up inside the lidded vessel ,on being transferred from the steel tray. And we children would help ourselves generously to them. How yummy they were! They simply crumble and melt in your mouth leaving behind a delicious aftertaste of coconut milk. I've never ever eaten such delicious appams after she stopped making them. I think, the best appams I ever ate were made by amma.