I used to look forward to eating Hoppers on Sunday mornings. A typical Sunday of my childhood would start with seven thirty mass at St Anthony’s and then back home to hot hoppers for breakfast. Quite often, my cousins would stay over the weekend with us and the children would rush home and head straight for the hoppers that we knew would be waiting for us. Ignoring the circular soft centre of the hopper we would all go for the crispy thin wafer like edges. Smothered in butter, and folded in with jam or sugar they would be devoured in an instant .The soft spongy centre of the hopper left for the adults. The fragrance of fresh coconut milk would waft up as we stuffed ourselves. Sometimes we’d eat them with a hot sambol and curry. Delicious.
Alice was an excellent cook and I loved her food. She was quick and deft with her hands. She didn’t follow any recipes and knew exactly how everything went together. A handful of chilies here, a couple of teaspoons of cumin powder there, a hint of coriander, a pinch of crushed mustard seeds, other spices in bottles and jars were shaken into the pan or dusted over the food. All done in a matter of minutes. She would taste later, not to check but only to confirm. The finely tuned combination of ingredients and timing had produced the perfect result yet again. Delicious. The smells made me delirious with hunger and everything tasted great. Alice instilled in me a love for cooking and food that would stay with me all my life.
Alice really knew how to make good hoppers. Not everyone could get them right. Just right. The batter was made with rice flour and freshly squeezed coconut milk. A good hopper should have a nice soft fragrant centre surrounded by slightly browned crispy edges standing firm and proudly upright, demanding to be eaten immediately. Hot, straight out of the pan.
Alice would make the batter the night before. The batter would then be allowed to sit for a few hours. Alice would wake up before the sun rose and start bustling around in the rear of the house. Sometimes I’d get up early and sneak into the kitchen to watch her cook and take in the smells that would fill the room. The fire would be stoked and then Alice would pour some batter into the pan, swirl the pan around so that the batter would coat the edges of the pan and the extra batter would drip into the centre of the pan forming a small fragrant milky pool. The hopper pan, which was shaped like a small wok would be then placed on hot coals. Alice would then watch the hopper until cooked. The soft white fluffy centre cooked to perfection in the middle of the pan. Alice knew how to get the temperature just right. No mean feat with a charcoal fire. No need for a flashy new stove for her. Not that we had one in those days. In fact they were better cooked on hot coals. This made the edges cook just right. Delicious.
“A good batter would never stick to the pan,” my grandmother would say. “Alice is the best cook. You children are very lucky. Although you should have seen her when I first got her as a young woman. Couldn’t cook to save her soul. I had to teach her everything; even to boil rice,” she lectured taking credit for Alice’s reputation. “I don’t know what she used to do in the village. Sometimes these village girls are really lazy, good for nothing types.”
The adults would frequently arrive at the table to be greeted by a pile of white hopper centres. The children having polished off the crispy bits, and left smears of jam in the butter. We would then be ordered outside to play and leave the adults to gossip about the neighbours or talk in hushed tones about serious adult issues that were frequently hidden from the children.
I’d hang around the front gate watching the action and hoping my friends down the street would be allowed out to play.
There was always something happening in our street.