Once upon a time, long, long ago, a creative soul mixed barley flour and water just so and fried dollops of the batter in ghee over a slow fire, sweetening it with honey. The Aryans called the resulting fluffy brown snack apoopam, and served it to the gods on special occasions. Thousands of years later, we are doing almost, though not quite, the same thing.
This Deepavali, many south Indian homes will feature a descendant of the apoopam. The Sanskrit apoopam or apoopa is now called appa or appe in Kannada, appam or neiappam in Tamil, appalu in Telugu, and neiappam or unniappam in Malayalam, all names suggestive of the plump and pillowy dessert that it is.
The earliest mentions of apoopam are in the Rigveda. For instance, a hymn extolling Agni, the god of fire, says: ‘Whoever this day, O God whose flames are lovely, prepares apoopam, O Agni, mixed with ghee, Lead thou and further him to higher fortune…’
Over the centuries, barley was replaced by rice, and honey by jaggery or sugar.
But even in the 10th century, appam retained its status as a pre-eminent food for the gods. In Tirupati, for example, several hundred of the more than 1,000 inscriptions found in the Venkateswara temple record donations of appams. One, inscribed on the eastern wall of one of the temple gateways, dates from 1530. It records a donation that was to be used for offering the god nine padis (a measure of volume) of appams during a temple festival and one padi of appam on the birthday of the donor’s father. The donor would get to keep a quarter of the appams; the rest were distributed among devotees.
Similar inscriptions in Srirangam, Hampi and several other temples around south India refer to the appams offered to the gods there.
These appams from the medieval period had one ingredient that sounds almost sacrilegious today: a heap of pepper, often accompanied by a dash of cumin seeds. In a research paper on recipes gleaned from medieval south Indian temple inscriptions, scholar Andrea Gutierrez, from the University of Texas, writes that "the pairing of pepper and sugar appears again and again in medieval temple naivedya". Was this mix of flavours perhaps a metaphor for life?
We do not know when pungent pepper was dropped from appams. But with the three basic ingredients of rice flour, jaggery and ghee, the appam continued to evolve, proving itself a versatile, protean dessert that took on different forms in different regions.
Srirangam in Tamil Nadu is a sort of appam capital, with appams being offered in the hundreds to the deity at the Ranganathaswamy temple even today. It is made traditionally with pieces of banana being added to the dough, enhancing sweetness and softness.
Lord Vishnu, it would seem, is particularly partial to appams. In the Krishna temple in Udupi, Karnataka, appams are offered to the god 365 days a year. And when jackfruit is in season, pieces are added to the appams.
In Chettinad, the appam takes on a different, though equally delicious avatar. Kandarappam, as it is known, is made with a batter of rice and urad dal ground together, jaggery, and a little soaked moong dal. It is made on special occasions like weddings and festivals, especially Deepavali. “It’s a work of art,” says writer and food expert Priya Bala. “The ratio of rice to urad dal, how long it soaks, how it is ground, all of it matters.” Like all appams, the perfect kandarappam is fluffy, not flaky, full of holes, with a texture “somewhat like a British crumpet”, she says.
Kandarappams are fried one at a time, so that each sinks to the bottom of the hot oil and gets a deeply browned, “amazing, aesthetically crinkled edge”, as Bala puts it.
Which brings us to the question of whether or not to use a mould. Most home chefs today use either a special mould called a kuzhiappam chetti or appakaral, or a regular paniyaram pan to fry appams. At the temple in Udupi, appams are made without moulds. But it is impossible to tell from inscriptions whether or not moulds were used in the past.
Bala says making appams in a mould is a cinch: “You can’t go wrong with it.” Legions of cooks who have tried and burnt their appams would disagree.
Enter S. Meenakshi Ammal, author of the seminal 1951 Tamil cookbook Samaithu Paar (Cook And See). In her list of "appam varieties", Meenkashi Ammal includes recipes for whole-wheat flour appams, semolina appams and kalyana appams, made for weddings, with sesame seeds added to the batter before frying. You can also add coconut shavings to the batter, she says.
Her pro tip for the perfect appam: Pour some hot oil or fat over the appam as it fries. “This will make the appam puff up nicely,” she writes.
Meera Iyer is a Bengaluru-based writer.