Puttu Is the Breakfast of Champions in Southern India

I wake up to the smell of steaming puttu wafting across my home. I breathe deeply, trying to hold it in. The earthiness and simplicity of this dish makes it the perfect comfort food with which to start the day.

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Steaming puttu. Photo by Ajith.

At its most basic, puttu is a dish of rice flour that’s crumbled like coarse breadcrumbs, layered with freshly grated coconut, and steamed in a piece of bamboo stalk. With brown garbanzo curry or a mung bean thoran and poppadum on the side, it becomes one of the best breakfasts in the world.

Want a sweet version? Try it with a steamed plantain and a sprinkling of sugar. Eaten like rice, it pairs with any side dish: a duck mappas, a fiery fish curry, a shrimp fry, a vegetable medley, or even a beef roast. In Kerala, the ingredients—coconut and rice—are part of the lush and verdant landscape. This dish has traveled to Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries, becoming slightly altered in the process, but its soul is rooted in God’s Own Country.

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Photo by Ajith.

Puttu is humble fare, like homemade soup. It is a wholesome dish and a great leveler, eaten by the rich and the poor alike. The fiber in the unpolished rice flour, the small amount of fat from the coconut, and the protein from the beans keep hunger at bay. It is a matter-of-fact dish, eaten to nourish rather than please.

A while ago, puttu began disappearing from breakfast plates from homes in Kerala. Snubbed for its commonness and edged out by its less nutritious cousins, it became a food memory for many.

Until now.

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Puttu Thali. Photo courtesy of Dhe Puttu.

Back on the table, puttu is having a Cinderella moment—from obscurity to centre table, all primped for the ball. People are pairing it with exotic fare like calamari, trotters, quail eggs, mushrooms, paneer, and chocolate. Wheat, oats, finger millet, semolina, corn, shredded tapioca, and even couscous can be substituted for the rice flour. There is a puttu for everyone—vegans, gluten-free dieters, and diabetics. Using navara rice for the flour—which holds medicinal properties in the Ayurvedic tradition—or high-protein, organic pokkali rice transforms puttu into a superfood.

Puttu is cooked in a puttu maker—a cylindrical kutti placed on a kudam, a sort of steamer. There is a fascinating array of puttu makers now available, from the traditional bamboo to the modern multi-kutti or dome-shaped stainless steel ones. Even coconut shells are used to steam puttu.

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A variety of puttu makers. Photo by Gabris.

Restaurants are kicking up a storm with their innovative and myriad all-day offerings. At Dhe Puttu (“Look! Puttu”), a puttu-only restaurant owned by the popular actor Dileep, people wait in long queues to sample the many varieties available. Some of the dishes have creative and quirky names, named after the films of the actor. Ezhu Sundara Rathrikal—“those seven beautiful nights”—is a combination of seafood, chicken, meat, vegetables, and fruits layered with rice, wheat, and red rice flour. It is an explosion of many flavors, but they surprisingly work well together. A constant refill of Sulaimani tea, steeped with herbs and spices, helps digestion.

 “Puttu is a super-healthy food, any time of the day,” says Mr. Santhosh, manager at Dhe Puttu. “Our chefs are constantly experimenting to create new and interesting combinations. Our Spanish puttu—with pimentos and olives—and Chopsuey Puttu are our fusion fare, and popular with customers.”

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A spread of different puttu. Photo by Gabris.

There are many more types of puttu be had elsewhere, too. Puttu kadas, or street stalls, pop up during the evenings. Many restaurants organize puttu festivals during Onam, the harvest festival celebrated in Kerala.

As for me, I’ll stick with my favorite: half a kutti of puttu with a meatball curry, and the other half with a steamed ripe plantain and a sprinkling of sugar. Pancakes and waffles have nothing on this.

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