A firm but spongy center, stretchy sides that evolve into a decorative crisp: The perfect hopper has much in common with the perfect bra. It can perk you up in the morning and comfort you when you get home. It’s perfect for a lazy Sunday brunch but jazzy enough for Friday night.
If you’ve never eaten a hopper, the word might conjure images of fried crickets at a Thai market. Both countries do share beautiful beaches, coconutty curries, and violent Buddhist chauvinism. But Sri Lankans generally don’t eat bugs. I have witnessed only one incident of insect consumption: the time a fly flew into my great uncle’s mouth and never re-emerged.
In Sri Lanka the word “hopper” (appa in Sinhala, appam in Tamil) will conjure a smile.
Hoppers are often described as a type of pancake, and their simplicity is equally deceptive. First of all, there is the love marriage that underpins so many Sri Lankan dishes: Rice flour—what else in a country where people eat bath three times a day?—is paired with coconut milk.
The hopper’s soul is the leavening agent, which could be yeast or baking soda, beer or toddy (palmyra wine), depending on where you are in the world. Salt and sugar complete the shopping list.
The mixture is left to rise; then it’s poured into a thachchiya, a small woklike pan with a lid, and steam-cooked until done. Easy, right? Hopper chefs preside over several pans at once, moving with a swift omniscience that is part Zen, part assembly line.
Having churned out hoppers that look like nailed-it memes, I can attest that skill is required at every stage: mixing the batter, leaving it to rise (two hours in tropical climes, two days in gray London), greasing the pan (sesame oil rubbed on with a cloth), pouring in the batter, and resisting the temptation to take off the lid too many times.
Get it right and it slides gracefully onto your plate with a gentle tap. My husband, who would make a killing as the “white hopper guy” in Colombo, can do this.
Get it wrong, like me, and you’ll probably have to chuck the pan. But short of being burnt on, no hopper goes uneaten (you’d never throw away the first pancake to go wrong, right?). As Theresa May’s Brexit PR team might say: Any hopper is better than no hopper.
So forget what you’ve heard about Sri Lankan rice and curry. Don’t be fooled by the short-eat vans hawking heart attacks in a pastry or the kottu men clattering their roti cleavers like devil dancers. Resist the practical appeal of lamprais, however much a holiday in South Asia makes you long for order. And pay no heed to those who get misty-eyed about the crab they once tasted in Jaffna. (Really, ignore them. They’ll never tell you the name of the restaurant but will produce a second cousin who can take you there for a good price.)
Each of these temptations has detractors as well as champions, and the latter will insist that only their Aunt So-and-so-singhe makes it properly.
Hoppers, on the other hand, may not be everyone’s favorite, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like them. Hoppers have the power to unite people in a country where nurturing divisions is a national pastime, transcending the ever present boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and class.
Decades of Tamil oppression, which led to a bitter civil war, have politicized everything in Sri Lanka, even food. It never fails to upset me when local Tamil dishes are referred to as “Indian” even though they have been in Sri Lanka for millennia. Hoppers, though, are embraced as both typically Sri Lankan and authentically Indian. Food historian Gil Marks traces their origin to Jewish communities in Kochi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. Today they are eaten wherever there is a sizable community of brown people.
People have told me that Sri Lankan hoppers are different: more bowl-shaped and crispier than the standard Indian version. But I have eaten many a flat hopper “back home,” as Sri Lankans abroad are contractually obliged to refer to the country. I’m also somewhat skeptical of such reports, given that they come from the same folks who’ve tried to convince me that Sinhalese people are light skinned—I’m not—and that everything from alcohol to dancing was invented in Sri Lanka.
If anything, our hoppers are boring. We have none of the dazzling varieties found across the bay, like the deep-fried rose hopper of Syrian Christian origin. But therein lies their charm: Like a good wingman, the hopper helps others to shine. Even that takeout curry you should never have ordered can sing when nestled into a hopper.
Add treacle or condensed milk to the batter and you get sweet hoppers, crying out to be eaten with ice cream. Or fruit. I suppose one could do fruit.
I’ve stretched the boundaries of hopper acceptability—I’ve stuffed them with cheese and jam, rolled them up, and stuck them under the grill. The only thing I consider off limits is the bizarre practice I’ve spotted in London: people filling their hoppers with curry. This is the moral and practical equivalent of chucking a bread roll into your soup. Just don’t.
Ultimately, though, I’m a traditionalist. I like my hoppers best in the morning, with an egg cracked into the pan at the right moment so it becomes one with the batter, served with a little coconut sambol and lunu miris (dried red chili, onion, lemon juice, and salt). Cooked by my husband. With the heat on high. So I can dream of being “back home.”