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Putu mayam is a South Indian snack of rice flour noodles, steamed and eaten with sweetened toppings such as desiccated coconut, gula Melaka (palm sugar) or biji sawi (mustard seed). South Indian in origin, these string hoppers are served either as a breakfast item or as a dessert.
The snack is made of rice flour mixed with salt and water. The process begins with rice being soaked in water overnight and then ground into flour. Sifted for impurities, the flour is thereafter steamed or roasted. The rice flour is then mixed with water and salt into a paste. Pandanus leaves are sometimes used to add fragrance and flavour to the mixture. Nowadays, in countries such as Indonesia, vibrant colouring of green and pink are added to what was traditionally a white dough.
The mixture is pressed through a wooden mould known as sevanazhi, which has holes at one end, creating long, stringy noodles. The vermicelli is squeezed out in a circular pattern, making them appear like lacey, round cakes. Traditionally, the mixture is pressed through the mould directly onto a rattan basket. Several baskets layered with strands of string-hoppers are then stacked and steamed for about three minutes. Once cooked, these can be served sweet with gula Melaka, jaggery, gur (date palm sugar) or grated coconut; or the dish can be savoury, accompanying a meal of meat curry or coconut chutney. It is sometimes served cold as a dessert.
Some suggest the dish has its roots in China, from where noodles originate. Trade with South Indians brought the concept of rice noodles to the Indian community. It is believed that the dish came to Malaya through South Indian sojourners from Sri Lanka or Kerala, India, where it is known as idiyappam. In Kerala, unpolished rice is preferred, thus the idiyappam is made of unhulled rice, giving the dish a darker hue. Tamils in Sri Lanka call the dish pittu or puttu. The flour layered with scraped coconut is steamed in the hollow of a bamboo, reminiscent of putu bamboo sold in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. The dish was commonly eaten as a main meal with curries and stews, served for breakfast or dinner. Initially, only children ate it as a sweet dish with grated coconut and sugar.
In Indonesia, the dish is known as putu mayang. Mayang means “grated coconut kernel”, a reference to its topping. Mayam, on the other hand, means “weight of gold”, which some dismiss as having little connection with the dish. Thus putu mayang is believed to be the more accurate enunciation. The name is often also translated as rice vermicelli or rice flour string hoppers. The Indonesian version adds tapioca flour and santan (coconut milk) to the mixture.
In Singapore’s early days, putu mayam was sold by itinerant South Indian vendors who rode bicycles with the dish in a basket balanced on their heads. The earliest references to putu mayam in Singapore are found in reminiscences such as that of author Ian MacLeod, who remembers that in the late 1920s to 1930s, the dish was served with gula Melaka and coconut and wrapped in newspapers. The gula Melaka was traditionally cut into small blocks and served on the side. Often, instead of newspapers, the dish was served on a cut banana leaf.
While it remains a dish sometimes served on Indian festive occasions such as Deepavali and Indian weddings, the Indian Muslim community has helped to make putu mayam a popular dish during Ramadan and other Malay festivities.
There is a unique variation of the dish found in Penang that is made of biji sawi (mustard seed) and which results in a healthier, brown version.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the leftover ingredients of putu mayam were made into putu bola, ball-shaped rice flour eaten with desiccated coconut and brown or red sugar. A uniquely Singaporean concoction, putu bola was sold for five cents each and was often eaten as a breakfast dish, popular especially among the less well-to-do. Over the years, putu bola fell out of favour and was almost unheard of until 2010, when the Ananda Bhavan Vegetarian Restaurant revived it as a special commemorative menu item to celebrate Singapore’s 45th National Day.
Putumayam, putuh mayam
Putu mayung, putu mayang
Kutu mayam (Peranakan)
Tamil string hoppers
Idiappam, idi appam, iddiyappam, idiaapam
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.