KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — We know them as appam while the Sri Lankans call them hoppers. Sugania Naidu Suriapragasam grew up eating them as her mother made them regularly at home, and she now owns a café dedicated to them.
Hoppers KL opened last August at a three-storey heritage building on Jalan Pudu after about eight months of planning and preparations, and that included perfecting the recipe for the bowl-shaped “pancake.”
“Up until the day before we opened, I was still tinkering with it,” Sugania reveals. The formula she now uses is an adaptation of her mother’s recipe and the Sri Lankan version that she tasted on a research trip to Colombo.
“Malaysian-style appam has the aroma and sweetness of coconut milk, whereas Sri Lankan hoppers are either plain or with egg as they’re typically eaten with curries and chutneys. Also, the former tends to be flatter while the latter is like a deep bowl.”
Hoppers KL’s interpretation marries the best of both, resulting in half domes with deep, spongey centres and crispy browned rims. The shape makes them ideal containers to hold a variety of toppings and that is how Sugania serves them.
Each hopper is thus truly a meal in itself, while helping to avoid the wastage that Sugania had observed in the Sri Lankan way of serving, where accompaniments are placed around the hopper and much is left uneaten.
With Hoppers KL’s presentation, you are more likely to polish off everything. It helps that the dishes are each a beautiful medley of colours and textures but of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and Hoppers KL doesn’t disappoint.
Currently, the menu lists 15 options of sweet and savoury toppings, flavours that are familiar and comforting to most Malaysians. The Gula Melaka with desiccated coconut poached in coconut milk is the epitome of that, a harmony of sweet, creamy, a touch of salty and that appetising sourish hint from the fermented batter.
It’s a simple yet winsome combination that appeals to all ages, as does the Pandan kaya with crumbled toast and salted browned butter served in a light green pandan-infused hopper.
Another bestseller is the Mango with toasted black sesame, coconut milk and jasmine, which while edible, leaves a bitter aftertaste. But the flowers are not mere garnishing; interestingly, they do impart their distinct fragrance to the dish.
For savoury options, you can add a kampung egg to the plain hoppers and they’ll even ask if you like the yolk runny. That pairs well with peppery goat, reminiscent of mutton varuval, lifted with a dollop of yoghurt and made even more interesting with a piquant garlic pickle. Fresh coriander balances out the richness while pomegranate seeds give a lovely crunch.
A firm favourite among regulars is what they have christened the nasi lemak hopper as it features chicken rendang, sambal, anchovies, groundnuts, and cucumber. The rendang is slow roasted so the flavours are well developed, and the sambal is a good balance of sweet and spicy.
All that’s missing is the coconut rice, but you can order that as a side dish. “We added this to the menu after repeated requests,” Sugania reveals. “Some customers will place the rice right into the hopper and eat everything together!”
Sugania occasionally introduces special flavours and if the response is favourable, they are added to the regular menu. That explains how, within just six months of opening, their offerings have doubled and will keep growing as she continuously tests recipes, making it a point to balance out flavours and textures.
The squid curry hopper, for example, is gratifying on its own, with a whole piece of squid in an aromatic sauce. But the addition of crispy dhal gives it a subtle yet satisfying crunch.
She emphasises seasonal produce and uses only fresh produce. “Do you know that in the Malaysian food and beverage industry, 90 per cent of the ingredients are frozen? That’s a big issue to me,” says Sugania, who has a supplier sending vegetables and seafood from the market daily while she goes and buys the chickens herself.
Of course, that means higher cost, and she has to scale her pricing accordingly. “If I use frozen food, I can slash my cost by half but my conscience will not let me.”
Her no-nonsense approach and the finesse displayed in her dishes suggest an experienced hand in the culinary business, but Sugania has had no formal kitchen training. She only started cooking while studying in London, where she did a degree in Philosophy followed by a Masters in Psychology.
There is a food connection there: Her dissertation was on how people perceive food labels and showed that if words like “gluten-free” or “organic” are present, the products are considered healthier.
“The kind of research I wanted to do, I knew it was difficult to get a job in Malaysia... I considered running a business in the UK but things were looking very uncertain, with immigration laws changing and talks of Brexit. There, it’s make or break right from the start — you have to turn in a profit within the first few months.”
After she returned to Malaysia, in 2015, Sugania and her sister discussed ideas and decided to focus on hoppers as it’s a family favourite, and they couldn’t find good ones outside.
“A lot of appams we tried were too sour, which indicates over-fermentation. That’s inevitable as our weather is so hot.” To counter that, at Hoppers, coconut milk is only added each morning and to small batches of batter.
The two went café hopping to scout out the scene, and realised that everyone was doing pretty much the same thing. “I didn’t want to do the usual big breakfasts, pastas, and coffee... I did want to target the café-loving market, and also introduce hoppers to tourists and those who don’t usually seek out this dish.
“I don’t consider Hoppers KL an Indian eatery because there is so much variation to our food. That said, you also don’t find Indian food served in such a setting.”
Indeed, Hoppers KL fits right in with the Instagram-worthy cafés that Klang Valley dinerss favour. Architectural and design agency POW Ideas, whose creative touch can be seen at the likes of Merchant’s Lane and The Kitchen Table, transformed what was a law firm — the building once housed the office of former High Court judge RK Nathan — into a space that radiates a tropical and vibrant mood with Indian inspirations.
At the same time, they wanted to retain as much of the building’s history.
The result is a cosy den with high ceilings, airwells that let in natural light, and potted plants to bring the green indoors. The colour scheme — rich hues of pink, magenta, and teal — was inspired by the peacock, which is also Hoppers KL’s logo and a mascot of sort that they have nicknamed Meenashi.
Next to the counter, a long shelf is filled with books authored by RK Nathan. The menu is bound in cardboard folders that are typically used for legal documents.
The aesthetics are even more pronounced on the second floor which Sugania had previously turned into a bar called H by Hoppers but it was short-lived as she realised that there is a low consumption of cocktails locally. Most bar-goers prefer beer or hard liquor.
Instead, she is now focusing on converting that space into a restaurant called Colony, set to open in April, that will serve dishes from former British colonies in the region. The menu promises to be full of interesting discoveries; get ready to dig into wattalapam, a Sri Lankan dessert that’s similar to crème brulee but uses the same ingredients as kaya, plus palm sugar. There will also be a hybrid of naan and chapati served with bone marrow, or what Sugania describes as “meat butter.”
The food at Colony, she says, will be simple and not showy though photogenic as “people want good looking food here.” The unique flavours aside, what Sugania hopes to do is highlight how human immigration impacts the evolution of food and flavours.
“Food forms such strong memories of one’s travels. In developing the menu for Colony, I thought, if someone were to travel through these countries, what will they take away from it?”
We’ll have to wait till next month to find out. In the meantime, head to Hoppers KL and be bowled over by their take on the humble Indian-Sri Lankan delight.
Coffee Cocktails with a side of Hoppers
Head to Hoppers KL today (3pm, March 12) for this special event, held jointly with Wholly Spirits and Bean Reserve Coffee Roasters. There will be cocktails and cold brew coffee to complement Fried Chicken and Pandan Kaya hoppers. Tickets are priced at RM60 and sold at the door. Call 03-2022 0832 for reservations.
Hoppers KL is at 76 Jalan Pudu, Kuala Lumpur
Opens 11am-9pm, Tues-Sun; closed Mondays
Tel +603 2022 0832
Vivian Chong believes that a good day begins with a satisfying breakfast and some mornings, nothing but a spongey appam with crispy edges will do http://thisbunnyhops.com/