More than a decade ago, a young woman ventured into the hawker business making Indian delights such as appam, thosai and vadai, out of a small stall called Heaven’s Indian Curry in Ghim Moh. (Read our review on the stall here)
At that time, Madam Muthuletchmi Veerapan, now 48 and known fondly as “Letchmi” to her regulars, had to work very hard to perfect her cooking. She is a well-known figure not only in Ghim Moh Road Food Centre, but islandwide. New fans and regular customers come from as far away as Woodlands and Pasir Ris to savour her famous appam and thosai.
Making good appam is definitely not an easy technique to master. Perhaps that’s why there are very few hawkers dishing out this bowl-shaped delicacy these days. Letchmi lets us in on a few appam-making secrets.
When and why did you decide to open Heaven’s Indian Curry?
I started this business about 12 or 13 years ago. At that time, I was working as a telephone operator in a hospital. My friend told me that a stallholder was looking for someone to take over his stall, which sold Indian food. So, I thought, “Why not give it a try?”
My children were young and I felt that I could maybe earn more by operating a hawker stall, so I decided to take the plunge. Yes, I did it even though I had no experience in doing business!
How did you learn to cook?
I cooked at home but I wasn’t a very good cook. My mother was the one who taught me how to cook all the traditional Indian dishes.
While I did okay at home, I didn’t do so well when I first started the business. I thought cooking for the business–in big quantities–was just like cooking for my family at home. I was wrong, and I had to re-learn how to cook again. This time, it was for the business.
I took months to master my specialty, the appam. But like they say, practice makes perfect.
How did you learn how to make apam?
My mother taught me when I was young. But I wasn’t very good at it.
When I started this stall, I had to make many small changes here and there to the recipe and experiment with the techniques.
I read many recipes, checked and double-checked the amounts with my relatives and friends, and tried different recipes and methods at home. I did this again and again, and we had a lot of appam to eat during that time!
How is your appam special?
My appam are made according to traditional methods, just like how my mother used to make them.
For example, I cook the rice and grind it by hand. Combined with the other ingredients, this batter must be left to stand and rise for at least eight hours.
What items have you created on your own?
The cheese appam is my own creation.
I also created the royal thosai. It is a thosai with cheese, onion, chilli, potato and egg. It’s very tasty and also very filling. This dish is a good heavy meal in itself.
What is the secret to good appam?
Appam is cooked on a slow flame. The centre of the appam must be soft and the sides crispy and thin. But the centre cannot be too soggy or else, it will taste sour and have a wet texture. That’s why the measurements of the ingredients for the batter have to be very accurate.
And the technique of pouring the batter into the wok must be correct. Right after you put the batter in, you must carry the wok and ‘turn’ [swirl the batter] it so the batter coats the sides of the wok evenly. You must only ‘turn’ it once; you get only one shot. No oil is used when making appam and it cooks in its own steam. It may look easy but it’s not.
What is the difference between appam and thosai?
The basic ingredient used in both types of batter is rice flour. But for appam, we add some milk into the batter.
For thosai, we add a special dhal called urud dhal. It is white in colour and you can find it in Little India.
Who are your regular customers?
Eighty per cent of my customers are Chinese. I think Chinese like to have different kinds of food and they are more daring to venture into new cuisines. From my experience, they love the taste of Indian food, especially the food we prepare at the stall as most of it is light and tasty.
Some people have come to the stall and were reluctant to try or unsure about what to eat. I usually recommend the lighter items like a plain thosai with curry and chutney or appam. If they like it, we gain new customers and they always recommend us to their friends.
About 15% of my customers are Malays and actually, only about 5% are Indians. I think this is because in many Indian households, they make their own thosai at home on weekends.
What has changed for you since you started this stall?
I feel happier and more fulfilled after starting this business. I am my own boss and I also enjoy meeting people during the course of my work. Seeing my customers’ satisfied faces makes me happy.
What are your plans for the stall in the future?
I have plans to expand but I have not found the right stall and the right location. Currently, the space in the stall is too small for me to add new items.
Describe a day in your life.
My day usually starts at 4am but on the weekends, it starts at 3.30am. I am in the stall by 4am, where I prepare my chutneys, batter, curries and gravy for two hours. By 6am, I am ready to serve.
I am lucky to have a few helpers. My three sisters take turns to help out at the stall. They come at 7am and I leave at about 9am. I leave the running of the stall to them after that. The stall closes at 2pm.
At home, I take a nap, do my household chores and cook for my family. In the evening, I start preparing ingredients for the next day. For example, the dhal needs to be soaked for at least three to four hours. The batter for both the thosai and appam have to be prepared in advance and allowed to sit overnight.
I usually go to bed at around 10.30pm.
My business hours are short but the preparation work is long and tedious. That is why many people find it difficult to venture into this business.
#01-15, Ghim Moh Road Food Centre, Blk 20 Ghim Moh Road
Opening hours:Daily: 6am-2pm