Thursday, 12 April 2012

Appam and Stew

Some twosomes are just perfect for each other. Laurel and Hardy. Tom and Jerry. Rajma-chawal. You can't think of one without the other. And for the Malayalis, appam and stew. When I was growing up, appam and stew was the traditional breakfast at home for Easter and Christmas. How we rushed back from mass at church in the morning so we could get home as quickly as possible and stuff our faces with appam and stew.

My mother is an appam expert. She makes them just right, lacy thin and crispy on the sides and soft in the centre. Making the perfect appam takes practice and skill. The batter needs to be fermented just right, you need to be able to twirl it around to make the right sort of appam shape in the appachatti, which is the distinctive pan that we use in Kerala to make appams. My mother has it all perfected to a fine art. I wish I could say the same about myself! I haven't been able to find the energy or inclination to make appams from scratch, as it involves grinding rice with a whole host of other ingredients. When I see the word "grind" in a recipe, a little light goes off in my head. I associate grinding ingredients with pain and suffering in the kitchen (think of all the preparation that needs to be done before something needs to be fed into a mixer/food processor and all the itsy bitsy machine parts that need to be cleaned up after!) and steer as far as possible from recipes that call for it.

So my experience in appam production is limited to the sort that relies on a mix out of a packet. No grinding, but you still need to use yeast and coconut milk and get the mixture to ferment overnight to prepare the appam batter. In cold and dry London, fermenting appam batter is an uphill task. This time, I had my brother around for Easter. I wasn't going to take any chances and risk Easter breakfast. I left all the heating on overnight in the living room, and left the bowl with the appam mix in a vat of hot water. I did everything short of tucking the appam batter into bed under a warm duvet with a hot water bottle. I wonder if anyone in history has ever shown appam batter so much love. Anyway, it worked. More or less. The appams were better than those that I have ever managed before, but still not quite the perfect texture. They were a bit powdery as opposed to soft and shiny, which is how I remember the appams of my childhood. Oh well. I will blame my tools and say that it is the readymade appam powder's fault.  At least, they turned out nice and pretty because I have the twirling figured out.

The best thing about the stew that goes with appam is the gravy. It is an elegant dish. Not many ingredients, simple flavours, but delicious nonetheless. While the appams could have been better, the stew was a resounding success. This is such an easy recipe that you must try it at home. Traditionally, we use mutton for the stew. Mutton is tough to find in London though. What comes closest is lamb, and I have never liked the tough texture of cooked lamb. Instead of risking it, I played safe and decided to go with chicken instead. If you do have access to mutton though, I'd strongly recommend that you try the recipe with it. And if you are a vegetarian, you can whip up this dish in no time (as you can eliminate the additional time that it would take to cook the stew if any meat were to be used) - all you need to do is substitute the meat in the recipe with cubed potatoes, carrots and peas. I have no doubt that it will be an enjoyable meal.

Chicken Stew (recipe sourced from my mother)

800 grams chicken on the bone (marinated in the juice of half a lemon and some salt for a few hours - I find that this tenderises the meat, but you can omit this step if short of time or lemon juice)
2 small potatoes cubed
1 cup shelled peas
2 small carrots cubed
2-3 sprigs of curry leaves
1 can of coconut milk
salt to taste
5-6 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 small piece star anise
1 tsp pepper corns (whole)
2 tbsp saunf/fennel seeds
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tbsp garlic paste
2 medium onions finely sliced

Heat the oil. Add the saunf and when it emits an aroma, add in the rest of the whole spices. Once these have been roasted through, add the curry leaves. Stir for 20 seconds or so, and then add the ginger garlic paste. Once this turns a light golden brown and releases oil, add the sliced onion. To preserve the light colour of the gravy, do not overcook the onions. Add a little salt to aid the cooking process. Once they turn pink (as opposed to a darker golden-brown), add the chicken. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.

In the meantime, put the peas in a microwave safe bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water. Cover with clingfilm and cook till cooked but not mushy - they should retain their shape in the gravy. Cook the potatoes and carrots in the same way. Cook the vegetables separately as cooking time will vary for each of them. Note that the potatoes will take longer to cook. Once done, add to the chicken after it has cooked through. Finally, lower the heat and add the coconut milk. Let it simmer on low heat for a couple of minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve with appam or failing that, white bread. Rotis should be a last resort.

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