August 14, 2011

Appam and Sri Lankan Beef Curry

Mary, who writes the delicious blog, Mary Mary Culinary was our August Daring Cooks’ host. Mary chose to show us how delicious South Indian cuisine is!  She challenged us to make Appam and another South Indian/Sri Lankan dish to go with the warm flat bread.

My best friend in college (and one of my best friends to this day) is Sri Lankan. This wasn't immediately apparent from the food she prepared in our dorm kitchen. To be fair, she cooked a mean Ramen with scrambled eggs. And we survived quite nicely on those noodles supplemented with scallion pancakes, cheese fries and pizza. Okay, come to think of it, it’s a miracle we survived at all!

One summer I was lucky enough to visit my friend and her parents in Indiana. Her mom is an excellent cook and she made all sorts of delicious meals for us. I remember eating double stuffed baked potatoes for the first time and thinking how gourmet they were!

But the meal I remember most clearly was traditional Sri Lankan beef curry with hoppers. Hoppers (the Sri Lankan word for appams) are yeasted breads. They’re similar to dosas, but a little thicker. My friend's mom made these delicious breads even more impressive by topping each one with a perfectly fried egg.

More than 15 years later, I can still remember tearing off a piece of the spongy hopper, dipping it into the runny egg yolk, then soaking up some of the beef curry with it before popping the entire delectable bite in my mouth. Wow!

So you can imagine how excited I was when I saw that this month’s Daring Cooks challenge was appam and curry!

Mary provided us with a recipe for Sri Lankan Beef curry. The method was pretty standard for a meat curry – sautéing the meat in a mixture of onions and spices and then simmering it in liquid.

But the Sri Lankan flavors were totally different than what I’m used to. This curry incorporates lots of curry leaves, which have a strong, distinctive flavor that I happen to love. It’s also got coconut milk, which makes the curry rich and luxurious, and tangy tamarind pulp, which cuts through some of that richness.

For me, the really challenging part of this challenge was the appam. I’ve never made appam or dosa or anything even close. So I had to follow the directions as carefully as possible then hope for the best.

Well, they took a lot of time and effort, but they turned out great. The appams were slightly crispy on the edges and spongy in the center. They really soaked up the rich, complex flavors of the beef curry.

This meal brought me right back to my time in Indiana with my best friend and her wonderful parents. And it made me even more appreciative of the all effort – and love – that had gone into the food I so enjoyed during my visit.

This was a time-consuming meal, so I broke it up into two days. I made the beef curry on the first day. Curries often taste better the next day anyway, after the flavors have had a chance to really penetrate into the meat. The first step was to assemble the spices for the spice mixture – cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon, seeds from green cardamom pods, and rice. (I used ground cumin/coriander powder, which I had on hand, in place of the seeds.)

Toast the spices until they are fragrant and the rice is slightly toasted.

Grind the spices in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

In the meantime, soak some tamarind in hot water. 

After about 30 minutes, squeeze the pieces of tamarind to release as much of the pulp into the water as possible. Strain out the tamarind seeds. Set the tamarind pulp aside.

Prepare your beef. I bought chuck steak and cut it myself into the size I wanted.

Chop up your onions and chili and have your curry leaves ready.

Now the cooking begins! The recipe said to cook the onions together with the chili, turmeric and curry leaves for just 3 minutes. I did this step a little differently because I’ve found that if you get some nice color on your onion, it imparts a really rich flavor to your curry. Also, if the onion isn’t properly softened at the beginning, your curry will end up thin and watery. So I added the onion first, by itself, and cooked it for several minutes until it lost its excess water and turned golden brown.

Then add the chili, turmeric and curry leaves and sauté the mixture for 3 minutes until the onions turn a beautiful golden yellow color.

Add the beef and turn up the heat to make sure the pieces brown rather than steam in the pot.

Once the meat has browned add the dry spice mix and coconut milk.

Simmer for a few minutes until the coconut milk has reduced down and really coated the beef.

Combine the tamarind pulp with your water and add to the beef. Let your curry simmer for an hour. You’ll see the liquid reduce and thicken and the mouthwatering aromas will keep drawing you back into the kitchen!

Your hard work and patience will be rewarded by an intensely fragrant and flavorful curry

Now on to the appams! To make the appams, you need to soak the rice for three hours to overnight, and then ferment your batter for 8 to 12 hours. I’m not an early riser on weekends so I knew that if I wanted to eat the appams for Sunday dinner I’d have to soak the rice the night before. Soaking the rice is just a matter of combining rice with a few cups of water.

The next morning, drain your rice. (My rice didn’t look all that different in the morning than it had the night before. I was a little worried about this, but I went ahead and drained it anyway.)

Dissolve the sugar into your water or coconut water. I used coconut water.

Then add the yeast and set it aside for 10-15 minutes, by which point it will get frothy.

Combine your drained rice and yeast mixture in the blender.

Blend for several minutes. Be patient with this step. Stop the blender occasionally and feel the rice mixture. The mixture will feel gritty, but as you continue to blend, the bits of grit should feel smaller and smaller. I finally stopped blending when my blender started to overheat and I was worried it was going to break down. Don’t worry about the slightly gritty texture of your rice mixture. You won’t feel the grit once the appams are cooked.

Transfer your blended rice mixture to a large bowl. Cover it with a towel and place it somewhere warm for 8-12 hours. The recipe says that the mixture will rise and fall and ferment. I have no idea what happened to my mixture while it sat under the towel.

Actually, when I removed the towel after 10 hours, I was worried. The mixture looked like it had seized up and shrunk down.

I added the coconut milk and salt and that helped, but not much.

The recipe said that the mixture should be a little thicker than milk. So I added some water until it got to that consistency. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. To be honest, at this point I didn’t have very high hopes.

At this point you just have to hold your breath and give it shot. Heat your pan and wipe it with a little oil. Be ready to work fast. First, add a few tablespoons of the rice mixture to your pan.

Swirl it around the pan.

Then cover the pan and let it cook for 2 minutes. When you remove the cover, you appam should be dry to the touch. It will be thinner and slightly firm on the edges, and thicker and spongy in the middle. Remove the appam from the pan and put it on a plate and then cover it immediately with a paper towel. Continue to make the rest of the appams.

In India or Sri Lanka, the woman of the house would probably stand in the kitchen and serve hot, fresh appams to her family one at a time, right off of the stove. I made one appam after the one and stacked them on a plate covered with a paper towel until they were all ready. They stayed hot and fresh.

Serve your hot appams with the beef curry, making sure to let the appams soak up all the tasty curry with every bite!

Appam and Curry

Sri Lankan Beef Curry

Recipe from Mangoes and Curry Leaves, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

This curry has an amazing depth of flavor from the spices, coconut milk and tamarind. 

1 pound boneless beef
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
10 fresh or frozen curry leaves
1 green cayenne chili, finely chopped
1 cup (generous) finely chopped onion
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
½ cup coconut milk
1 Tbsp tamarind pulp
¼ cup hot water
3 cups water

Dry Spice Mixture:
1 Tbsp raw white rice
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
one 1-inch piece cinnamon or cassia stick
seeds from 2 pods of green cardamom

1.      Cut the beef into ½ inch (13 mm) cubes or separate the ribs. Set aside.

2.      In a small heavy skillet, roast the dry spice mixture over medium to medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring continuously, until it smells amazing! You will be able to see that the rice is a toasted color.

3.      Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and grind/pound to a powder. Set aside.

4.      Chop the tamarind pulp and soak it in the hot water. Set aside.

5.      In a large, wide pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the curry leaves, green chili, onion and turmeric and stir-fry for 3 minutes. (I cooked the onions first, for several minutes, until they were a deep golden brown, then added the chili, curry leaves and turmeric.) Add the meat and salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so all surfaces of the meat get browned.

6.      Add the reserved spice mixture and the coconut milk and stir to coat the meat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

7.      Press the soaked tamarind through a sieve placed over a bowl. Use a spoon to press all the liquid and pulp out. Discard the seeds and stringy bits. Add the tamarind liquid to the 3 cups of water.

8.      Add the tamarind/water mixture to the pot and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cook uncovered at a strong simmer for about an hour, until the meat is tender and the flavors are well blended. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (I added some chili powder and salt at the end. I also squeezed some fresh lime juice over the curry to brighten up the flavors.) Serve hot.

Serves 4

Note: If you are going to make this curry ahead, remove the curry leaves before refrigerating the curry. The curry leaves will get more intense and bitter over time. If you’d like, add some fresh curry leaves when reheating the next day.


Recipe from My Diverse Kitchen

1 ½ cups raw rice
1 ½ tsp active dry yeast (don’t use instant or rapid rise yeast)
2 tsp sugar
½ cup coconut water or water, room temperature
1 ½ Tbsp cooked rice
½ tsp salt
½ cup thick coconut milk (from the top of an unshaken can)

1.      Soak the raw rice in 4 to 5 cups of water for 3 hours. You can soak it overnight.

2.      Dissolve the sugar in the coconut water or plain water and add the yeast. Set aside in a warm area for 10-15 minutes, until very frothy.

3.      Drain the rice and grind it in a blender with the yeast mixture to make a smooth batter. You can add a bit of extra water if needed. Add the cooked rice, and grind/blend to combine well. You can see that it is not completely smooth, but very thick—that’s about right.

4.      Pour into a large bowl, cover and leave in a warm place for 8-12 hours. You not only want the mixture to rise and collapse, but to ferment. When it is ready, it will have a slightly sour and distinctly yeasty smell. Don’t worry--they are mild tasting when cooked!

5.      Add the coconut milk and salt, and a bit of water if necessary, so that you have a batter that is just a bit thicker than milk. (I did end up having to add about ½ cup of water.)

6.      Heat your pan over medium heat. Wipe a few drops of oil over it using a paper towel. Stir the batter and pour in 3-4 tablespoons, depending on the size of the pan. Working quickly, hold the handle(s) and give the pan a quick swirl so that the batter comes to the top edge. Swirl once only, as you want the edges to be thin and lacy.

7.      Cover the pan and cook for about 2 minutes. Uncover and check. The center should have puffed up a bit, and will be shiny, but dry to the touch. When ready, loosen the edges with a small spatula and serve immediately. (I stacked these on a plate, covered with a paper towel until the were all cooked and they were fine.)

8.      Make the rest of the appams.

Makes 15 appam

Note: Leftover batter can be refrigerated for a day or two.


  1. Obviously I'm going to make this, but what I love most about your blog is how you breathe life into recipes by sharing the experience of enjoying food. You linked a very important memory to this dish and for that, I'm so grateful. I don't typically burst into tears while reading your entries (though each one makes me smile). This time I did and I don't feel at all bad about it!

  2. Your appam look perfect - not a mean feat, given how many others have had problems with this challenge - me included!

  3. both your curry and your appams look great!

  4. Wow! I'm impressed with your super detailed step by step! Gorgeous looking appam and curry :)

  5. Nice step-by-step pictures! Your hoppers and beef curry look so delicious...I got hungry reading about the egg hopper and the beef curry...yum!

  6. Loved you're story. I didn't know the Indian kitchen and loved it really well. Great post.

  7. It was so nice to read about your memories of this meal and how satisfying it was to recreate it. Great job on the challenge, and thanks so much for participating.

  8. Just joined Daring Cooks!!!
    Seriously, I wish you lived down in NY! We'd cook a lot together!

  9. Wow, great job, and what details commentary! Normally, I would've made the stew too, but the weather was just too hot, so I settled for the lighter shrimp. Everything looks perfect, the appams' edges are so crispy!


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