Appam treads beyond religious boundaries in Kerala
There are several churches in Kerala that prepare appam as an offering. At the St Thomas Jacobite Syrian Church every year on July 3, newly-married couples seeking the blessings for a baby offer ‘Neyyappam Nercha’ in the church. At the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Cathedral in Piravom several devotees offer a special service called Paithal Nercha at Easter. After various food offerings including neyyappam are sanctified by the priest, twelve young boys sit with the priest and they are fed the offerings.
A world of cooking vessels
Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds. Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes. The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers. Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.” In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.
Antiquity of Appam
Sacrificial rites were performed from the dawn of Hinduism in various forms and the Vedas outline the practice of rites according to the scriptural literature at that time. Vedic sacrificial worship was threefold. The pradhana or main offering was apupa – a round cake of barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a slow fire and sweetened with honey. Apupa was cooked on pottery over fire. The ritual manuals describe the preparation of barley and rice cakes in every detail. During early Vedic times barley was the most important grain. And honey was the earliest sweetener used and it was taken from two types of bees. The honey from smaller bees was considered better and used to sweeten apupas. By the time of Atharva Veda rice and sugarcane also became quite popular and juice of sugarcane was also used as a sweetener. In Food and Drinks in Ancient India Om Prakash writes that apupa was probably the earliest sweet preparation offered to God in India.
In Rice and Barley Offerings in Veda J. Gonda writes "Apupa was a favorite food of the Gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. The person making the food offering makes the cake assume the shape of a tortoise.This curious animal attracted the attention of the Indians at an early date, they supposed it to be a fundament of the earth and to warrant the stability of the world. It was supposed to represent vital sap and breath or vital power" A tortoise served as a base of the mountain Mandhara when gods and asuras churned the ocean. J.Gonda states that "although the sutra texts do not specifically say this, perhaps it may have been in this capacity - of a base - that the tortoise came to be the example of the sacrificial cake". Appam cooked in a cavity also has a tortoise- like shape.
It was not just in India that food offerings were a part of religious ceremonies since antiquity. Sacrifice to the Gods was very important in the ancient empires of the world. Gods provided grains and other foods, and humans in turn fed the Gods to appease them. The food was later fed to the people in a sacrificial feast. “The key political-religious-culinary ceremony in the Greek states, as in other ancient states, was the sacrifice and the following feast” Writes Rachel Laudan in the chapter on The Barley and Wheat Sacrificial Cuisines of the Ancient Empires, 500 BCE-400 BCE in her wonderful book Cuisine-Empire-Cooking-World-History.
“The Gods, for sure, were given credit for abundant crops, and famine was interpreted as an expression of their wrath. The Public’s offering of agricultural products and sacrifice of animals were made all the time to mollify the Gods” writes Nawal Nsarallah in her book Delights from the Garden of Eden According to Nasarallah the society of the Mesopotamian Gods was a duplicate of the human one and the temple idols were fed with the best food money could buy. And the temples had a lot of people for the service of Gods. She continues “ To prevent any contact between the Gods and the physical world, a linen curtain would be drawn while the Gods were supposedly engaged in eating and drinking”. These ancient practices seem very similar to those of the Hindu temples.
According to eminent Indian food historian K.T. Achaya both neyyappam and adhirasam were popular temple offerings in South India by the eleventh century A.D. Basic ingredients – grains (mostly rice) jaggery and ghee have remained the same over centuries. Depending on the location of the temple or home where the offering prepared other grains such as wheat flour, maida (all-purpose flour) beaten rice (poha) and semolina are also used. Softening agent such as ripe bananas or jack fruit, and flavoring with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds are also incorporated in the batter. It is intriguing that even centuries later, the recipe for appam has remained practically unchanged.
Achaya, K.T.Indian Food: A Historical CompanionOxford University Press 1994
Ammal, S. Meenakshi. Cook and See - Traditional South Indian Vegetarian recipesS.Meenakshi Ammal Publications, Chennai 2000
Crafts, Kevin. Ebelskivers: Danish-Style Filled Pancakes and other Sweet and Savory Treats. Weldon Owen Publisher 2011
Gonda, Jan. Rice and barley offerings in the Veda Orientalia Rheno-traiectina V.31.Leiden New York E.J Brill 1987
Laudan, Rachel. Cuisine & Empire Cooking in World History University of California Press 2013
Nasarallah, Nawal. Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine Equinox Publishing 2nd edition 2013
Rajan, Nalini Prasadam Food of the Hindu Gods. Vakils, Feffer and Simon Pvt .Ltd.Mumbai 2003
Sitaraman, Soumya Aravind. Follow the Hindu Moon A Guide to the Festivals of South IndiaRandom House India 2007