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Why did this 30-year old Singaporean pursue the art of making putu mayam?

Handmade snacks are rare these days, but to ensure the tradition lives on, Daniel Surendran continues to make putu mayam from scratch.

Daniel Surendran was never a fan of putu mayam. “Until I tasted the ones that were freshly made,” says the dynamic 30-year-old, who is now known for his handmade putu mayam (string hoppers). He currently runs two stalls, one at the Changi Airport Terminal 3 Kopitiam foodcourt and the other at the canteen on Level 5 at NUS Kent Ridge Wing, selling putu mayam, appam (a type of thin pancake made with fermented rice batter) and other Indian delights. He also helps out at his mother’s stall at Ghim Moh Market (#01-15, Block 20).

“My mum has been selling thosai and appam at Ghim Moh for about 20 years. She used to work at the stall, but eventually took over and named it Heaven’s Indian Curry, though, technically, she did not sell curry,” shares Surendran. His stalls are simply named Heavens, even though it is not obvious from the signboard.

Recounting how he ventured into the hawker business, Surendran revealed that his mother never wanted him to follow in her footsteps. During his school days, he would work as a bartender and also assist his parents at the stall with the cleaning, the heavy lifting and the preparation, but never the cooking. “I like to cook and wanted to learn, but my mum refused to teach me,” he recalls. When it was time to enrol in university, an opportunity came knocking.

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HAND-CRAFTED SNACK Much effort and care is needed to create traditional putu mayam.

  • Putu Mayam making process

    DAILY GRIND

    Surendran prepares the putu mayam ingredients every day at 3am. He roasts the flour in a wok with some pandan leaves. “This has to be done by hand,” says Surendran, adding that he tried roasting the fl our in an oven but it didn’t work.

Dr Leslie Tay, blogger of ieatishootipost, who used to be a regular at the Ghim Moh
stall, encouraged Surendran to consider being the successor of his mother’s business and to keep the craft alive as not many people make appam from scratch anymore. “He told me, ‘If your mum can do appam, I am sure you can do putu mayam.’ But I did not know how to. Nobody in my family did. And other people will not teach you. I even sought apprenticeship from two guys who initially agreed to teach me, but, in the end, both declined,” says Surendran.

Putu Mayam made by Daniel Surendran

Daniel Surendran making putu mayam at the Changi Airport branch daily; it is then delivered to his other stall, and his mother’s.

In 2012, Dr Tay recommended Surendran to take up a stall at Simpang Bedok to sell fresh putu mayam. “So I discussed with my parents about putting my studies on hold, and they expressed that it would be all right if I did not want to further my studies then.

And if it didn’t work out, then I could go back to school. I might not have another business opportunity like this again, so I should try while I could. I took a month to consider and, in the end, I started the shop (now defunct).”

During the span of a month, he worked on his recipe. To his knowledge, putu mayam likely originated from the Southern part of India – rice flour-based Indian food are usually Southern – and can also be found in Sri Lanka. Hoppers (appam) and string hoppers (putu mayam) are staple foods in Sri Lanka, which can be eaten with curries or brown sugar. Up till opening day, he still had not got it right. He admitted that he was over-confident, and thought he could figure it out in a month.

Putu Mayam

Putu mayam is best eaten with brown sugar and shredded coconut, or orange jaggery sugar.

“I have made putu mayam that tasted weird, like rubber bands. The problem with putu mayam is that it is so deceptively simple. But I realised that the simplest things are the toughest, because there is no margin for error. It was either too soft or too hard; too overcooked or undercooked. It was either too white or yellow; good or bad, there was nothing in between.”

Not one to give up, he persevered with experimenting, recording temperatures with a food thermometer (down to the decimal point) and tracking time with digital timers. “Someone with years of experience won’t need the timers as they can do it by touch. But I had to figure all this out on my own,” he says.

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Putu Mayam

Fine rice flour threads form putu mayam or steamed string hoppers.

Finally, after countless trial and error sessions, and plenty of customer feedback, he finally got it right. Fresh off the steamer, the putu mayam is lightly fragrant and fluffy. The snack is best enjoyed with shredded coconut and brown sugar, or orange jaggery sugar for a taste of nostalgia.

PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Jean Yap