The second major snow storm of the year was under way. The outdoor lights switch on at 5pm like clockwork as I stand there, putting the finishing touches on my Christmas tree. Yet, instead of rewarding myself with some hot chocolate with baileys I find myself at my neighbours house, drinking chai, ready to learn about a Sri Lankan staple, String Hoppers. Jyoti Aunty, my neighbour for the past 8 years, grew up in Kerala, and when I wanted to learn more about String Hoppers (a rice flour noodle) she graciously offered to teach me. If her Hoppers are anything close to her Dosa batter, I know I am in good hands. And so there I am, snow falling, drinking chai and making string hoppers, finding comfort in the only way Jyoti Aunty knows how.
As we begin, the kitchen is filled with the faint sound of rumbling as the pot of water begins to boil. In keeping with traditions of how Jyoti Aunty learned, we aren’t using a kettle to boil the water. The kitchen gets busier, with the soft scratching of my wooden spoon against the large steel bowl, slowly mixing tablespoons of hot water into the rice flour and salt, which has combined to create a mass of spongy, sticky dough. Every 30 seconds I check in with Jyoti Aunty to see if I need more hot water or not. Three simple ingredients make up string hoppers: rice flour, salt, and hot water. However, knowing just how much hot water to add is something that only comes with practice. With the dough up to Jyoti Aunty’s standard, I split it into smaller cricket ball sized servings. Jyoti Aunty brings out a 5 inch tall steel cylinder, topped with a hand cranck that opens up — this is a string hopper mould, and I gently place one serving of dough in. She has already put the template she prefers most at the bottom of the machine, so that when the dough is added, the lid is pressed back on, and the hand crank spun, the thinnest String Hoppers emerge. I turn the hand crank, and skinny, snow white strings of dough are pressed through.
The strings of dough swirl on top of each other, neatly criss crossed, forming a birds nest of thin fluffy dough. Hoppers can traditionally be found across Sri Lanka as well as the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, Jyoti Aunty traditionally uses fresh coconut flakes placed between the wicker baskets and the dough to keep it from sticking. The basket is then left in a closed pot of boiling water to steam. Today, at the direction of Jyoti Aunty, I use a bit of olive oil to keep the dough from sticking and a steel Idly plate instead of a wicker basket. With fresh coconut not as readily available, everyone must adapt in one way or another.
The thin, deceivingly delicate rice noodles, looking very much like vermicelli, sitting on the steel plate are steamed. In a mere 5 minutes, they have slightly puffed up and cooked all the way through. The Hoppers are soft throughout, each noodle pressed against another waiting to be pulled apart. They have a subtle earthiness to them but nothing significant, after all it is only rice flour, salt and water. But I sense the calming excitement as we transfer the String Hoppers from pot to plate.
String Hoppers are versatile but never eaten alone.
Jyoti Aunty remembers being a kid in Kerala and eating string hoppers with a pinch of sugar and freshly grated coconut for breakfast. Meanwhile, adults often top their Hoppers with spicy coconut sambol, a mixture of fresh coconut, chillies, lime, onions and salt. Jyoti Aunty now loves her breakfast String Hoppers with left over curry.
In downtown Toronto, a String Hopper dinner combo comes with sambol and curry. There isn’t really a wrong answer when it comes to which curry to get. Jyoti Aunty is partial to chickpeas. I am partial to eggplant. Suresh Doss, a Sri Lankan born CBC Food writer, is partial to mutton and fish.
Regardless of what you choose, String Hoppers excel in taming the fiery spice that is so common in Sri Lankan curries. String Hoppers are the equivalent to freshly baked naan, or pita with a meal. They may not be the main event, but they bring everything together and without them, you feel empty. The longer the curry sits on top of the Hoppers, the easier they pull apart. Forks of curry and long String Hoppers remind me of the satisfaction one gets when pulling apart melted cheese stretching between bites of pasta. Today, Jyoti Aunty has made a spicy mutton curry comprised of chillies, cumin, fenugreek, cinnamon, fennel, curry leaves and coriander which is balanced by the freshly made Hoppers. It’s impossible to stop eating, each bite inviting another. The sambol adds another level, a crunchy burst of creamy coconut, before I am hit again with the juicy crispness of fresh chillies. This is not for the faint of heart.
I speak to Suresh Doss, a Toronto food writer who has exposed many of his readers to the Sri Lankan restaurants and cooks this city has to offer. Although his first memory of String Hoppers is eating them in his grandmothers kitchen, he talks about how it wasn’t until he moved from Sri Lanka to Canada that he began to miss the dish, and develop the appreciation for the work that goes into making them. He also tells me that, as a byproduct of the civil war, many with Sri Lankan roots have not adjusted to dining out, preferring to pick up and take out their meals to enjoy at home.
Both Jyoti Aunty and Suresh say that making String Hoppers at home is extremely rare in Canada. It’s simply easier to buy a fresh box of String Hoppers with all the accoutrements from the local shop which feeds 4–6 people for $5. Whether you’re a part of the Sri Lankan or South Indian community; that warm, fuzzy, comforting feeling of pulling apart curry ladened String Hoppers is the same. “Every time I get a box, a flurry of emotions and memories come flooding back. It’s one of the few dishes that traps me completely, I go silent, and don’t surface until after I’m done.” says Suresh.
As I sit with Jyoti Aunty, savouring my homemade Hoppers, she tells me that every time she sits down with a plate, it reminds her of being back home in Kerala. Looking out the window, at the snow slowly sifting through the air, I close my eyes and transport myself along with her, back to the sunny South Indian west coast.
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Thanks to Chris Nuttall-Smith and Amy Snow for edits; Jyoti Aunty and Suresh Doss for their insights and help.
Bitunthavanam is located at 900 Rathburn Rd W in Mississauga. Cash & Debit Only (Cash Preferred).