Hoppers which are also known as Appam, are an iconic food of Sri Lanka. Most people here in Malaysia are familiar with this snack, a wafer-thin bowl-shaped pancake made from a fermented batter of rice flour and coconut milk, although one really has to track it down in stalls tucked away in local markets or certain coffee shops. The unique part is that hoppers are cooked in small wok-like rounded pans so the dough cooks thick and soft on the bottom, and thin and crunchy around the edges.
While most of the Appam sold here are sweetened, and eaten as a snack, they wilt the moment they’re put into your hands and one has to eat them fast and furiously to get full satisfaction; the Sri Lankans serve it both ways, with savoury accompaniments or sprinkled with jaggery, their special brown palm sugar as a dessert.
At the newly opened A LI YAA restaurant in De Garden, the Appam have gone up market, and here in this tranquil ambiance, subdued lighting with a tastefully designed black and white theme; ambient music playing in the background, one can enjoy Appam Galore, a quartet of a choice of plain, broken egg, or sweet coconut milk appam remaining crispy at the table, served with their Katta Sambal, a fiery, Maldivian fish paste and Seeni Sambal, caramelized onions with hints of subtle spices – RM20. Of course you can order the Appam singly and team it with the Sri Lankan Sambal set which consists of the above two mentioned sambals plus two more, the ‘karupillay sambal’ which is blended curry leaves and the pol sambal (coconut chutney to us locals who are used to eating it with our thosai). This Sri Lankan version is thick pure grated coconut, subtly spiced with lime, onions and chilli. This had me asking for more which they were happy to provide.
A LI YAA means elephant, an animal with great cultural and religious significance in Sri Lanka. They are symbols of wisdom, power and wealth. And the menu which is a mere eight pages in length reflects this, offering the essence of Sri Lankan cuisine in an environment exuding elegance. Here the paintings and creative photographic works of Malaysia’s homegrown artists depicting the Sutra Dance Theatre’s artistic director Dato’ Ramli Ibrahim are displayed for sale with proceeds going to the ‘Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage’ in Sri Lanka.
Most people mix up Sri Lankan food with Indian food, a cuisine with which Malaysians are abundantly familiar. First off, it’s good to know the difference between these two cuisines. What separates Sri Lankan from Indian cuisine is that Indian is dairy-based while Sri Lankan dishes do not use any dairy products. Food from the southern Indian state of Kerala has plenty in common with Sri Lankan cuisine: use of coconut milk in curries plus a love of seafood from bountiful coastlines. Sri Lankans generally cook with roasted curry powder, Indians with raw powder. South India and Sri Lanka crank up the heat by favouring hotter chillies (the heat often tempered for western palates).
Rice is the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine and is usually served at every meal – including at breakfast, when hoppers make an appearance although at A LI YAA they’re available all day. Sri Lankan curries are much more subtle. They use a lot of roasted cumin powder, while the Indians use a lot of coriander.
A LI YAA Kuala Lumpur, the parent restaurant from which the Ipoh one is modelled, won a stream of awards last year at the 14th edition of the Malaysia International Gourmet Festival (MIGF) held every year in October. It was A LI YAA’s first time at taking part in the food fiesta taking home seven accolades including Judges’ Choice for Best Festival Offer, Most Innovative Cuisine, as well as the Most Popular Restaurant based on the portions sold to diners and the Festival Diners’ Choice Awards for Most Outstanding Mains.
Now Chef Yogeshwaran Selladoreh who has worked his magic in their KL restaurant, helms the kitchen team in Ipoh, while manager Miguel de Jan leads attentive and dedicated waiters in ensuring diners are well looked after. And our group of seven were certainly well served.
We began with a plate of crunchy papadums served with the quartet of sambals already mentioned, were so addictive that we had to ask for seconds. Brinjal Moju (RM12), deep-fried sliced brinjal with spices and a dash of vinegar was one of the better brinjal dishes I had in a while.
The Fish Cutlets made of fresh tuna fish, potato, diced onion, green chili, lime, chopped mint leaf, mixed together and bread crumbed and deep fried were wolfed down happily – RM16.
This was followed by the String Hopper, a Sri Lankan specialty prepared from spaghetti-like strings of unprocessed rice flour dough squeezed through a sieve which are steamed to perfection and fried with fresh seafood. Utterly delectable at RM28.
For Mains, the Mutton Paal Poriyal, slow cooked lamb cubes in devil aromatic spices was yummiliciously tender and well spiced – RM26. The Fish Curry was mild, the fish fresh and cooked with a blend of traditional Sri Lankan spices – RM26 while the Negambo King Tiger Prawn cooked with fresh pineapple was robust and a good stand in for their Famous Sri Lankan Crab (RM14.90 per 100g) which, alas, to our chagrin was out of stock! RM165 for three huge prawns.
We ended the meal, groaning from surfeit with their Vatillappam – a rich pudding made of coconut, brown palm sugar, sugar, eggs and various spices including cinnamon. Heavenly at RM8.A LI YAA (Pork Free)
d-g-r 2&3 De Garden
No. 3 Persiaran Medan Ipoh
Tel: 05 547 3700
Business Hours: 11am-3pm; 6pm to late night. Closed Mondays.