If there was a dish that could have the potential of launching a thousand ships (read: versions) and each equally loved, then this Kerala staple will be the one.
Some meals can be satiating, some indulging. Some would build you for the day, and some give you the essence of the region one is in. In the case of puttu and kadala kari, they easily tick all boxes individually, and together.
It isn’t just for the sake of saying, of course. This ancient breakfast lives up to each of the above and more even for first-timers.
And for good reasons too, according to Chef Regi Mathew, Co-Owner and Culinary Director of Kappa Chakka Kandhari. The restaurant is a popular Kerala cuisine restaurant in Chennai and Bangalore.
He says, “Puttu may appear intimidating because of its cylindrical shape and the layering of rice powder and shredded coconut, but when it comes to the technique and the preparation, it is one of the easiest. One could whimsically demand puttu and it can be made as it needs no soaking, grinding or fermenting. All you need is just rice powder, coconut, jaggery or sugar, kutti (the cylindrical mould) and the kudam (vessel), and it is ready in a matter of few minutes.”
Puttu, The Fast Food Of The 16th Century
In that sense, continues Chef Mathew, “Puttu can be considered fast food of the 16th century – quick to make, satiating and hyperlocal. Not just in Kerala where it became the choice for the first meal of the day, but across Southeast Asia where it is known as Putu piring, putu bamboo, putu mayam, putu ayu, khanom krok and so on.”
In fact, the exponential rise of puttu’s popularity, adds the chef, “can be attributed not only to the ease of making it – back then the kutti were made of bamboo instead of the brass, bell metal and steel that came later on – but also its versatility. Much like its brethren appam and idiyappam (also called noolputtu because of the proximity of the time the dish came into the culinary fore).
He continues, “Puttu too could be combined with a variety of dishes and accompaniments, and it did fit like a glove. That and its ability to satiate and energise one for the better part of the day made it an easy pick, given that it could also be packed and taken to work.”
Given that Kerala was also primarily vegetarian in those times, Chef Shibu Thampan, Executive Chef, Four Points Sheraton, Kochi InfoPark, says, “One can only fathom how readily this new varietal could be made with local ingredients and paired well with the favourite curries accepted. Of course, there was another reason why puttu took on in a big way in Kerala and nearby regions.”
He continues, “It used up all the discarded broken rice that would be traditionally turned into a powder and used either as a thickener or for floor art. As a society that was built on the ethos of zero wastage and sustainability, puttu proved to be right up the alley. Much like kala channa when it first arrived in Kerala, partly thanks to the trade and partly due to the vast Tamil kingdom back then.”
The Classic Pairing
“The quick preparation simply wasn’t the only factor that worked with puttu and its wide acceptance though,” quips Chef Chalapathi Rao, Chef-Owner, Simply South. “It was also the theatrics, the familiar taste and even the composition, which was on par with the diktat of wellness. In fact, noolputtu or idiyappam that made its mark in other the Tamil kingdosm around the same time much like puttu did in Kerala; given the shared food culture, and produce.”
Chef Rao’s explanation lays the ground for how kadala kari became a classic pairing with puttu. The dish is a velvety, warm curry made with desi channa and perfect spice balance. This hardy legume reached Kerala’s then primarily vegetarian shores in the early half of the 10th century, and was an excellent protein choice. Chef Thampan says, “ Pairing both these dishes created a delicious, protein-packed breakfast that was affordable and nourishing.”
Puttu And Its Many Affairs
Of course, continues Kerala-born Chef Thampan, “Changing food culture over the years, especially after the Portuguese and the Arabs made Kerala a second home, puttu making and puttu pairing underwent a change to suit new food habits. This primarily involved the inclusion of meat in it, be it pairing with meat curry or using meat in them. Most of the popular puttu combinations one sees today were a result of this cultural confluence.”
Chef Mathew adds, “Traditionally, the combination with puttu was with either vegetables or lentils as they made for a great pre-work start because of the Glycemic Index and nutritive balance. That keen understanding and knowledge of using food for wellness is perhaps the reason that the original pairings, one of them being with Kadala Kari and the other with locally grown banana find relevance in the dining table even today.”
Both Chef Mathew and Chef Thampan have naturally grown up on a healthy dose of puttu and kadala curry. They often define it as a dish that reminds them of ‘motherly love’ whenever they make it, which admittedly, is almost every week.
The History Of Puttu
Incidentally, for a dish with immense nostalgsic value and cultural connect, it’s history is mired in folklores leading to different schools of thought.
So Chef Mathew, like popular author K T Achaya, believes that puttu may have come to Kerala from Southeast Asia where it was already a popular street food. Whereas Chef Thampan states that puttu was introduced by the professional coconut tree climbers from Sri Lanka, who came to our shores on the behest of the then King of Travancore.
Another food lore claims puttu as an indigenous innovation, given that steaming as a technique already existed since the 6th century. Another factor that supports this theory are the different variants, ranging from Malaysian Putu Bambu Or Putu Piring, Sri Lankan katta Sambol, Philippines Puto and Indonesian Kue Putu who have born allegiance to the Tamil Puttu. Even in India, puttu not only inspired the idiyappam and to some extent the modakam but also the Assamese Tekeli Pitha that follows the same culinary technique.
As one of the important ports on the trade route, Chef Rao says, “It’s quite likely that puttu may have travelled from Kerala to the different kingdoms along with traders and travellers looking for a better opportunity. Like the Rangoon Naattukkottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu developed the recipe for Rangoon Puttu. Another factor at play could also be the empires whose boundary through history extended till Bali and beyond, so puttu and its brethren could very well be a result of such cultural exchange.”
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is what makes a good puttu. “A well-done puttu is always moist, even when it is cold,” says Chef Mathew. “The key to making moist, delicious puttu is not only getting the 80:20 ratio of rice powder and coconut right, but also the amount of water/coconut milk added to it. And there is where the charm of puttu remains as a soft puttu with sweet undernotes is all it takes to fall in love with this classic breakfast,” he adds.
Incidentally, it is the same, concludes Chef Thampan, “with Kadala Kari, which gets its warm, sweet, velvety notes from the use of roasted coconut and a blend of warm spices – all local to the land of Kerala.”
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.