Sothi and pittu – served from a bucket and eaten by hand
by Christine Knight
This is a guest post by my amazing friend Anne Fitzpatrick, whom I met in the playground on my first day of school, and who is now one of the best-travelled and most inspirational people I know. You can read more of Anne’s writing from her recent stay in Sri Lanka in The Australian travel section – The old men of Jaffna and Young ladies, take note. This is Anne’s take on how to make pittu and sothi.
Pittu is a food that ticks all of my favourite food boxes – cylindrical, involves coconut, needs to be eaten by hand, and has an ambiguous pronunciation. Ask for “pittu” in one little food stall in Jaffna and you’ll receive confused looks until you mime its shape, making the waiter shout gleefully “Ah! PUTTU!!”. Go to another one, and ask for “puttu” and the same thing will happen until they realise you’re asking for “pittu”.
Whatever you want to call it, pittu is a wonderfully simple but tasty dish found in Sri Lanka, Kerala in India and wherever in the world you can find someone from those areas. It’s simply flour that’s been roasted and then steamed with coconut in a special tall steamer. It may sound a little dull, but add a coconut milk curry (sothi), or a few ripe bananas, or some dhal, mush it all together with your right hand, then push a scoopful of it into your mouth with your thumb, and you have the perfect south Asian comfort food.
I ate pittu so regularly during my two-month stay in Jaffna, that I soon had no problems telling the shop owners what I wanted. I’d walk in for breakfast (or lunch or dinner) and they’d bring out a plate of pittu, a mug of tea, maybe a boiled egg, and always the metal bucket of sothi so I could ladle out my share before they put it on the next person’s table.
Unfortunately, my recipe only has vague proportions. My 80-year old Jaffna landlady didn’t measure anything when she was showing me how to make it. However, she did give me very specific dimensions for the pittu-pushing stick (see step 8) – 25 cm long and at least 5 cm in diameter.
- Select your flour – standard wheat flour, white rice flour, red rice flour, ragi (finger millet) flour, or any other exotic flour you can find.
- In a large fry pan, dry roast the flour for a few minutes over a high flame.
- Let it cool, then add some hot, salted water to the flour, so the mixture is damp, but not wet. By hand, crumble the flour mixture as much as possible.
- If you have a metal tumbler like they use in India you can use it for this next step, otherwise a biscuit cutter should do the trick. Use the tumbler to “cut” the mixture until there are no big lumps.
- Get your coconut ready. If you’re lucky enough to have a coconut tree and the special grater that you sit on the floor with to grate out the inside out with, then you probably know what to do already. If you don’t, I think that frozen shredded coconut from an Asian grocer would work. Defrost it and make sure that it’s not too wet (just so it is the dampness of real coconut).
- If you have a pittu steamer, or some other phallic-shaped steaming device, put in alternating layers of a handful of flour and then pinches of coconut. If you don’t have one of these, you can put the same proportions of flour and coconut into any other type of steamer, but it will only be half as fun to eat.
- Let it steam for just a few minutes, until you see the steam coming out of the top.
- Use a specially designated “pittu pushing stick” to push the pittu out onto a plate.
- In a wok or broad based saucepan, heat some coconut milk over a high flame.
- Add a handful of chopped shallots, garlic, and plenty of fresh curry leaves.
- Add pinches of salt, turmeric, pepper, and any other spices you might like to try.
- Add some sliced green chillis and boil for a few minutes.
- If possible serve it from a huge metal bucket.