Here In My Home - Malaysian Artistes For Unity

Wednesday, 7 November 2007


What is usually made of rice flour, steamed and eaten with palm sugar and freshly grated coconut, uniting Malaysians in savouring its heavenly taste whilst cross culturally shedding its origins through time as no one culture can any longer claim it as its own. Well that would be puttu, not the crumbly hard-pressed flour cookie that shares a similar name but the steaming hot sieved flour delights that over here are normally eaten as a sweet treat for breakfast or tea. Yes this is the steamed rice cakes as defined by the original Tamil word Puttu but the localised versions has been so bastardised, but in a good way, to the extent that the populace of its homeland may not longer recognise it and together with one version that appears to be homegrown has become uniquely our own.

The most wide spread form in the Malay Archipelago is the Puttu Mayam, otherwise known as idiappam in its native land. This has even spread to the Island of Jawa, where its name has been elegantly corrupted to Putu Mayang, or is it vice versa, as mayang is the Malay name for the act of swirling the puttu dough into stringy round cakes. Whereas the Singhalese, Keralans or Southern Tamils that would have collectively brought this cuisine to the region would eat the puttu as a savoury meal with curries, over here it has morphed as a sweetmeat eaten with the various regional forms of palm sugars or brown sugar, yet never without the shredded coconut that lifts the taste sensation up a notch. Woe betides you if you are unfortunate enough to be swindled by an unscrupulous vendor who gives you instead reconstituted coconut gratings with the cream pressed out, as what you would get is really rubbish. This is because the real pleasure of eating puttu mayam is that the puttu acts as the canvas for the marriage of sugar and coconut cream to burst into a flavour sensation, much like rice with its accompaniments. But it is not so strange when you think about its savoury origins eh. My favourite vendor sells his goodies at the intersection of Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Lebuh Ampang in KL, and he is one vendor who is not stingy in the size and thickness of the puttu mayam where a three ringgit packet is the size of a rugby ball, provides generous amounts of brown sugar that is uncut with flour as some deceitful vendor may do and his grated coconut is guaranteed fresh, again in copious amounts. Now remember that most puttu mayam vendors are still Indians so there are some who still sells the puttu mayam its original styles, and one popular version with the health conscious set is the ragi puttu made with millet flour that gives it a darker colour, but methinks this is a rare breed.

Another type of puttu that has made the transition here is the puttu bamboo or putu bambu. The quintessence puttu in its homeland, its form here has been transformed from the original form of plain cylindrically shaped puttu coated with coconut to encase a filling of palm sugar that oozes out from its centre. Sadly this is a rare occurrence as many vendors stinge on the sugar by only superficially filling the puttu with the palm sugar, leaving only blotches of sugar to flavour the puttu. As the puttu can be quite dry in this shape as it is steamed in bamboo or bamboo shaped canisters, this would be a no-no for sweet toothy me and that forces me to usually do without. I would only want those oozing sugar like the one shown in the photo. The reason for this may be because the puttu bamboo can still be easily found in its original unsweetened form to be eaten as a savoury dish though some are eaten like puttu mayam with grated coconut and sugar, so puttu bamboo with the sugar filling is a half and half still. Yet you can also find ragi puttu bamboo with the sugar filling in certain areas, so it may just be a regional thing. In fact in the Philippines it seems that the version there incorporates a local fruit as the filling, showing well how the regional variations differs. And do not get me started on the various permutations in the various Indonesian regions.

While plain puttu bamboo eaten with coconut and sugar as accompaniments are called by the name of puttu piring in certain areas, the name actually refers to another type of puttu for the Malays in general. This puttu is something else all together although the ingredients and the way of steaming is similar to the puttu bamboo, and seems to be totally homegrown. Forsaking the bamboo canisters, these puttus are steamed instead in small saucepans that give it the saucer like shape. These saucepans are usually half-filled before the palm sugar is added, though the best like those sold by my favourite vendor are actually studded with palm sugar chips rather than spread with melted sugar, as this gives pleasurable bursts of sugar when you bite into it much like biting into buah melaka or onde-onde, and then more flour is added until the brim and trimmed off if necessary. Then the saucepans are wrapped with muslin cloth and put on the steamer until adjudged as cooked and taken out. The coconut gratings are then poured on top, before being covered with a piece of banana leaf that lends additional fragrance to the puttu as the steam interplays with the leaf to impregnate its essence into the puttu as the final touch. Served turned over so as to sit on the leaf, the putu piring only now awaits your bite but this may require a certain technique to ensure the coconut does not spill. I take the easy way out and eat it upside down myself. Oh yeah do not forget to observe the vendor juggling the saucepans while waiting, as this is quite entertaining by itself. The puttu piring is now so popular that it has become a featured item in hotel buffets, especially for the Ramadhan.

Variations to this native species? Well the Chinese version is called the kueh tutu where the coconut is already cooked with the sugar before being stuffed into the cake, much like coconut buns. A version from Perak not only forgoes the sugar and steamed in flower shaped cake vessels instead, but uses glutinous rice flour hence it is also called putu pulut. This is quite dry and though I come from Perak myself, I do not favour it. From the east coast comes putu halba, made from tapioca flour with halba or fenugreek added to the mix, supposedly giving an herbal take to the cakes. I have not tried this myself, as this version is supposedly becoming a vanishing breed on top of being a seasonal food item, so I hope to be able to taste it before it truly disappears. I guess that there are still many other versions of puttus out there, but this three types of puttus are those that can claim the mantle of cultural crossovers that unites us in our beloved food mad nation.

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