Just returned from the ultimate paradise island vacation in the Maldives. Famous for it’s amazing marine ecosystem and white sand beaches, the Maldives is a tiny Asian island nation in the Indian Ocean made up of a chain of atolls less than an hour flight from Sri Lanka and the southern tip of India.
It’s only natural that an archipelago of islands surrounded by water has a cuisine predominantly seafood and coconut based. Due to its proximity to India and Sri Lanka, the cooking of Maldives is heavily influenced by the earthy spices of cardamom, cumin, coriander and cinnamon. Maldivians typically combine tuna, their favorite staple food, with spices and the vibrant flavors of chilis, onions and lime juice to create flavorful dishes. Tuna is either grilled, smoked or prepared in rich coconut milk based curries and often boiled in a soup and eaten with rice called garudhiya.
Although it would have been easy to just fill myself on a liquid diet of tropical cocktails, I couldn’t help but savor the local cooking, especially the exotic fruits and a popular Sri Lankan dish called hoppers or appas introduced to me at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa.
Native to Sri Lanka, hoppers are lacy bowl shaped pancake authentically served as street food. Made to order and eaten at any meal of the day, hoppers are crisp on the outside with a spongy center. They’re a satiating mix of cracker and pancake and are best eaten piping hot, straight from the pan. Made from a mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and authentically palm toddy (wine made from the sap of a palm tree), the fermented batter gives the dough a bubbly texture and slightly sour flavor. The thin crepe-like batter is poured into an appachatti, a small well-seasoned wok shaped pan with a tight fitting lid and cooked over a low fire until the outside is crisp golden brown and the inside is just set.
Sri Lankan hoppers can be served in a variety ways, either savory with spicy chili sambals or the gravy from a slow cooked curry. The sweeter option is with bananas and jaggery (sugar made from palm sap) or just served plain with an egg poached in its center. My favorite is a perfectly cooked egg hopper with a slightly runny yolk served with a dry coconut sambal spiked with chilis. Either salty or sweet, they are addicting and are the perfect dish for a light meal.
Makes 4 servings
2 cups rice flour
1/2 teaspoon fresh or dried yeast
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup warm water
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoon vegetable oil
Combine the flour, yeast and sugar in a large bowl. Add the water and whisk until just combined. Let the batter sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes until the yeast activates and the batter begins to froth. Whisk the coconut milk and salt into the batter and stir until the batter is smooth and has the consistency of crepe batter. Add more coconut milk if necessary.
Heat an appachatti or a small wok over medium high heat. Once the pan is hot, carefully rub a paper towel soaked with vegetable oil on the inside of the pan. Add a 1//2 cup ladle full of batter into the pan and quickly rotate the pan to work the batter into a thin layer covering the sides and the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium , cover the pan with a tight lid and cook until the edges become golden brown and crispy and the middle puffs a bit and is still a bit spongy, 7 to 10 minutes.
To make an egg hopper, 4 minutes into the cooking, remove the lid, break an egg into the center of the pancake, cover the pan and cook the egg until just set, about 5 minutes.
To serve the hopper, use a spatula to remove the pancake from the pan and slide onto a plate. Serve hot with coconut sambal.
Makes 2 1/2 cups sambal
2 cups fresh ground coconut or unsweetened flaked coconut
2 small shallots, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small tomato, seeded and finely diced
1 to 2 serrano chilis, seeded and finely minced
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground chili powder
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
Place all the above ingredients in a large bowl. If using a dried coconut, add 2 tablespoons of water to moisten the coconut. Put on a plastic glove and use your hand to press and squeeze the ingredients until the flavors meld and everything is well combined, 2 minutes. Let the the sambal sit at room temperature for at least an hour. The sambal can be kept refrigerated for 4 days.