I have many fond memories of eating appam (aka hoppers) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
My mother and grandmother regularly made the finely thin pancakes I would normally have for breakfast with a dollop of coconut cream in the bottom and a spoonful of cane sugar.
The batter was made with ground rice and coconut, which were allowed to ferment overnight. Then they skillfully swirled the batter in an appachatti (miniature wok) to create the bowl-shaped pancakes, which had a crispy ring on top and a thicker bottom.
But when we arrived in Canada in the early ’90s, our appam meals were in short supply.
While the Greater Toronto Area has one of the largest diasporas of Tamil Sri Lankans, a good hopper with a crispy top and a comforting center has been hard to find.
“Hoppers must be eaten quickly, they do not last,” said Kumar Karapillai of New Kalyani Restaurant in Scarborough. “That’s why for years you only saw the flat, deflated pancakes.”
Today, it seems that many Tamil-owned Sri Lankan restaurants have à la minute hoppers on their menu.
Walk into your favorite Tamil takeaway spot early in the morning and chances are you’ll spot a procession of freshly made hoppers sitting on the counter.
Here are three of the best places to try one of my favorite dishes.
New Kalyani restaurant
Kumar Karapillai and his wife opened New Kalyani in a lonely square in Scarborough seven years ago.
Karapillai makes his hopper batter according to his grandmother’s recipe.
“I only use rice, but I can’t tell you what kind it is,” Karapillai said of the secret family recipe.
It’s a small amount of batter, which he leaves in an open container to ferment overnight, before cooking the hoppers to order.
If it’s your first time trying a funnel, I recommend a regular version to really appreciate the range of textures, from the crispy, paper-thin edges to the center of the pancake.
The most popular appam on the menu here is one that gets a heaping spoonful of coconut milk in the center, which adds a luxurious creaminess to the pancake.
“Egg funnels are also popular,” says Karapillai.
There are two versions, one with the yolk intact, and the whites swirled around with the batter in the wok.
The second where the yolk is broken and coated all over the pancake, like having a hopper omelette.
(2847 Lawrence Avenue E.)
This is one of the oldest takeaways for Tamils in Scarborough, situated in an iconic square that houses one of the most popular Tamil supermarkets in the GTA, SP Importers.
There is no menu inside, but loyal customers come here for a variety of Sri Lankan dishes such as rice and curry, short bites and of course hoppers.
The family recipe of “rice and flour” batter is made every other day by owner Kasiny Rasalingam.
Kasiny’s husband, Vamadevan, makes the funnels to order and expertly creates the crispy tops with each pancake.
A sheet taped to one of the display cases offers options for regular funnels or those with coconut milk, but I think the best version here is off the menu.
“Those who like hoppers always ask for (coconut sambol),” says Priashanna, the couple’s daughter who recently started helping out in the store.
Hoppers are served with a generous amount of the sambol, made from mashed shredded coconut with red chilies and red onions.
Think of it as dry salsa – fiery, tempered by the coconut with spicy touches of the onion. Tear off a piece of the funnel and spoon the salsa on top to enjoy.
Saffron Spice Kitchen
(4646 Heritage Hills Blvd., Unit 15)
When Johnne and Priya Phinehas opened their takeout counter on Queen West eight years ago, there were no hoppers on the menu.
‘They are too difficult to make and keep. If we can’t get them fresh, there’s no point,” said Johnne.
Last fall, the couple opened a second location in Kee Square in Mississauga’s Heritage Hills Park neighborhood. It’s also a takeaway counter, but with a larger kitchen. As result Priya and Johnne have started offering hoppers Wednesday through Sunday.
“We make the batter a few times a week and it is fermented for at least a day,” says Johnne. The batter here is all rice and there are a number of options on the menu.
On the savory side, I highly recommend a hopper in combination with the house mutton curry. Johnne’s mutton curry is highly praised by its customers. The curry is cooked low and slow until it has a thicker body, which complements the pancake well.
Another great option is with the aubergine moju – cooked aubergine which is silky smooth and slightly sweet.
“We also recommend the combination of potato masala, eggplant moju, and (coconut sambol) in one funnel,” says Priya. It’s a loaded funnel with an array of heat and sweetness in every bite.