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Reconnoitring Puttu

Seasoned Chef Kasiviswanathan Muthuraman and culinary mentor Dakshina Ghosh look into the significant half of South India’s other favourite breakfast – and what made it earn the moniker ‘Breakfast of Champions’.


By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Stock Images

Watching Chef Kasiviswanathan Muthuraman (Director of Food and Beverage at Radisson Hotels) make puttu could easily be a crash course on not just how to make one of the most fascinating steamed delicacies of Southern India, but also in infusion. As the hands-on chef, he loves making this Tamil Nadu favourite breakfast every now and then, especially when he can get his hand on good quality rice and of course some fragrant leaves. This time however, the Chettiar culinary specialist is working with mango skins, thin layers that he deftly lines the puttu kutti (the cylindrical vessel used for puttu making) with then starts by layering the kutti with rice flour and coconut. The movement is rhythmical as he fills the kutti, leaving a little space on the top, screws the lid and keeps it aside as he begins with the second. Soon the kutti are placed into a steamer called kudam. The beauty about puttu, says Chef Kasiviswanathan (more popularly known as Chef Kasi to peers and others) as he takes a sip of his filter coffee, “is its versatility, not just in terms of the pairing which can range from jaggery and banana to duck, fish and even the famous Kerala kadala curry or Kathirikai Kosumalli Chettinad style, but also in terms of ingredients that it can be played with like millets. And thanks to this, puttu today has as many versions in India (and elsewhere in Asia) as perhaps the idli.”

Take for instance Putu Bambu. This popular Malaysian version is inspired by the sweet puttu Tamil Nadu called the Arsi Vella Puttu and is steamed in in bamboo pipes and has a distinct aroma of the pandan leaves. Likewise, is the Indonesian Kue Puttu, which unlike its Malay cousin is in shape of a disc. In Philippines, it is Kakanin, which is a steamed cake usually white in colour, but one can also find a green or purple version when flavoured with Pandan or Ube.

In fact, continues Chef Kasi, “in Southern India too where according to book titled Thirupugazhu, written in the 15th century, by the amil poet Arunagirinathan, puttu seem to have originated, the popular breakfast differs only in the use of flavorants like Tamil Nadu has a tradition of using leaves from drumstick to jackfruit to flavour the puttu, and whether it is made in a kutti (which is more Kerala dominant) or in a cheratta, in which case it can be shaped as a cake or a disc as well.”


What however doesn’t differ across board is the way the rice flour is prepared and the classic ratio of 75:25 that would result in a delicious, moist puttu, continues Chef Kasi, who finds puttu’s ability to jump ingredients and pair beautifully with accompaniments both ‘sweet and savoury’ one of the key reasons to why the steamed delicacy has made a debut in many a culinary table these days.

Concurs culinary researcher and mentor Dakshina Ghosh (Deputy Director, IIHM Bangalore), who finds ‘puttu’ modern style presentation along with the fact that it is steamed as other two key factor in the rise of puttu’s popularity.

Having grown on a healthy dose of the steamed goodness, Dakshina’s perception about puttu as a culinary innovation is that of a dish “that is designed for wellness and satiation.” Think about it, says the professor, “even the way the rice flour is made is crucial not just to for the puttu to be soft and moist but also how the body will assimilate and use the nutrients. In fact, the rice flour making, which is done by soaking the rice for three to four hours before it is dried and hand pounded into a coarse powder is perhaps the most laborious and significant part of puttu making, given that much of the way the dish will turn up is determined by the making of the flour. Interestingly, it is this flour that is used in making nool puttu and appam as well.”

 

And the key, she continues, to a good flour is how well it has been broiled or roasted. Broil too long and the rice flour loses its moisture pockets that the created within the kernels of the rice and the result will be a crumble, dry puttu; hold back on the process and the rice flour stands a chance of not only spoiling very fast, but the resultant batter or dough when steamed will have these lumps that would turn it into a disaster.”

One of the many reasons that puttu making is considered an art that has been taught from generation to generation, says Dakshina, who learnt hers both from the custodians of this techniques (the womenfolk at her hometown). And the one thing that I understood was patience and understanding, she continues, “one needs to not only have the kind of patience but also to understand how a rice kernel would behave to soaking and heating, and also how to work the combination to get the best result.”

A fine example to understand this is the Rangoon Puttu that was developed by Rangoon Naattukkottai Chettiars where they substitute white rice with semolina. And the reason that the change works, says Dakshina, “is because of the similar kind of reaction that rice flour and semolina have to roasting and then steaming.”

 

But what is it about Puttu that makes it such a fascinating bit of culinary innovation? To begin with, say the experts, is the use of rice. Rice in our culture is considered not just food of gods but also the grain that according to traditional wellness text is responsible for keeping the balance between the doshas thanks to its cooling nature. Aside that, it is the process of steaming, which as per Brahat Samhitha and Jain literary Soopa Shastra of Mangarasa (1508 AD), is the mildest and the best form of cooking rice by preserving its nutrients. Of course, it also makes the food light and easy to digest.”

However, there is a third side of the puttu goodness which is of the glycaemic response (GR) thanks to the larger particle size of the moistened rice flour of puttu that affects gelatinisation. According to recent research, GR is found to be the lowest in puttu when compared to iddyappam and appam, which means that the carbohydrate in puttu takes a long time to digest and hence the sugar levels in the blood rises in a gradual fashion. This makes puttu not only good for those with lifestyle ailments, especially diabetes but also for most of the working people who spent a lot of time on the desk. Add to that, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the cooling aspect of rice that manages the circadian rhythm of the body only adds to the puttu charm, which is further accentuated by the choice of rice varieties that are used to make puttu. For example, the Unakkalari variety is rich in bran and a good source of antioxidants, vitamins and fatty acids. Likewise with Mulayari and called 'Moongil Arisi' by the tribal in southern India is packed with proteins, amino acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals.”

The choice of rice in fact, continues Bhassin, “ensures that the food that you are pairing with has to be a combination of quick digesting food and has to compliment the process of digesting so a regular flow of energy to the body is maintained. And that is where classic pairing like the Kadala Curry, Meen Moilee and even the breakfast version of jaggery and banana come to the play as these composite meals ensure that you feel satiated and energetic through the day.”