Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Baabath & Pittu

The Sunday Times - 18.12.2005

Pittu and baabath in a humble little shop off Malay Street draw hundreds of customers

It’s simply delicious

By Smriti Daniel

They come in hordes to this pittu and baabath shop; they come on rainy days and on hot days; they come so often that it sometimes seems as if nothing could keep them away for long; they come to this place where there are few chairs and only one table and they bring friends, family and even the odd stranger with whom the only thing they have in common is a hankering for a good meal. On occasion they refer to themselves as “foodies” – lovers of good food. And if there is one thing any foodie worth his salt knows it is this – good food is often found in the most unlikely of places.

This place is so popular, that it doesn’t even need an official name. Ask anyone on Malay Street for the pittu and baabath shop and they’ll point the way. The shop opens at 4.30 in the evening and closes by 9 at night and yet in that time it does brisk business.

Baabath or tripe, is the main ingredient in many of their dishes, and appears in such specialities as the baabath curry and pastols. For those who have so far lived in ignorance, a pastol is a pastry stuffed with tripe and when it comes crisp and steaming it’s a temptation that is hard to deny. Other specialities on the menu include the likes of fried lung or liver along with less exotic fare such as beef and fish patties. However, it is the beef and marrow bone soup that is quite literally, the hot seller. Best on cold, rainy days, it is a broth one customer described as “absolutely divine”.

At first glance, it is a humble little shop that serves this delicious fare and yet its customers come in their hundreds. People from all walks of life frequent it and no one in the neighbourhood is surprised to find the business executive parked outside in his fancy car eating side by side with labourers from down the street. This is made possible mostly by competitive pricing - you can have your bowl of soup for Rs. 30 and a pastol for even less (Rs. 12). Very often there is not enough space inside and so people sit wherever they can – on stairs, on pavements and in vehicles – while they eat. Many choose to take-away the food.

The proud owner of this establishment is Kabeer Sappideen, who shares this responsibility with his wife Nona Uma Sappideen and seven children – two boys and five girls. “My wife learnt the recipe for the dishes from my mother,” says Mr. Sappideen, adding that his mother in turn learnt it from her mother and her mother learnt it from her mother – his great-grandmother. It is from these Malay ancestors that the current Sappideens have learnt the art of making the perfect baabath. This involves intensive cleaning followed by boiling sessions over a wood fire that last more than a day to ensure the meat is tender and well cooked; ditto for the beef marrow bone soup.

“The business has been in the family since 1942,” he says. Mr. Sappideen himself has had something of a colourful history, having been a cook on board various ships for nearly 25 years of his life. “I have been right around the world,” he says, “the only place I haven’t seen is Australia.” He goes on to give a list that is as dizzying as it is long and seems to truly include every place under the sun –Japan, Dubai, Somalia, Abidjan, Egypt and South Africa to name a few. He is also something of a linguist and can lay claim to knowing Greek and a little bit of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese in addition to being fluent in Tamil, Sinhala and English. He knows how to cook Greek food and says he picked it up while serving on a Greek cargo ship.

“I used the money I made on the ships to build this place,” he says, proudly indicating the room we are sitting in and the two storeys above it. He goes on to explain that the building is relatively new as it was only built a year or so ago. Before that the shop was located on Malay Street instead of its current Ferry Lane premises. In the middle it had been closed for a few months. “I was planning on closing it,” says Mr. Sappideen, “but then my customers told me that they would sue me if I did not sell my pittu and baabath curry again.” He points out a small brown bench tucked into a corner and says that for a while that was all the seating space he had to offer his customers and that too was on the pavement.

It is obvious that there have been difficult times, especially because he has so many mouths to feed. However, he expresses a lot of faith in his family, and hopes in particular, that the family business will continue into the next generation. It is far from being an unlikely possibility, thanks to a devoted clientele.

“I have been eating here for 20 years,” says Dominic Sansoni, one of the island’s most celebrated photographers, “and I have found the food has always been consistently good.” Simple but delicious food is such a pleasant break from the usual and there are no unpleasant surprises - “the menu hasn’t changed in years”, he says. “You can always find your favourites here.”

Response from Branu Rahim in Colombo

Dear Faji,

I did read this article many years ago, however I will relate a very interesting episode about this wonderful place>

As a kid of 6 or 7 years (that will be the early 50s), when my cousin Haji's mother and father used to come to our place for their weekly call to Colombo from Maskeliya, auntie would send me to this Pasthol joint. Vividly remember the cost of a Pasthol being 0.05 cts at the time.

So, armed with a Rs. 1/- note, I would go to this place and reteurn with 20 pasthols.

The lady was affectionately called "Puttu Nanay" by all those who came to buy Pittu + Babath or Pasthol not forgetting the famed "Kaaki Soup" (bone marrow soup) which was a delicacy even then.

Bolly's, my other cousin's, brother Rashid (remember him?), one day came and told us a story of how he had gone to buy Pasthol. He described in detail the method of preparation to an audience comprising even Haji's mum and dad.

There were pre-made small balls of kneaded flour on a mat on the floor. Puttu Nayanay would be seated on a small "hiramane" (manual coconut scraer) stool in front of a firewood flame between 3 large stones forming a tripod and a "Thachchi" delicately placed on top. When Rashid had gone to buy the Pasthol, the lady was frying the first batch for the day. She was apparently seated with her house-coat tucked way above her thighs and while frying the Pasthol, she would apply oil on to her left thigh with her left hand. Then she would take one of the balls of kneaded flour and place it on her thigh and begin to flatten the ball to a round flat round piece like a small thin roti.

She wud then proceed to put the filling into the flat piece of flour, fold it and make it into the shape of a patty which she wud put it aside for the next batch of frying.

With the right hand she would proceed to fry the pasthol and with the left hand she would flatten the dough on her thigh and make the pasthol for frying! Can u imagine this scenario?

After hearing this story, many people in our household including Haji's mother stopped eating pasthol!! Because of Rashid's big mouth, I was deprived of my favourite snack! In hindsight, I feel Rahsid would have been enamoured by the lad'ys lovely white thighs looking shiny with the applicationof coconut oil and would have been devouring this process more than the pasthol (large patty) manufacturing assembly line!

The episode may be frivolous, but I go to this place and savor the pasthol's even now. I also sometimes get some pittu from this place and bring it home as nobody in my family, including my wife, knows how to make "mani pittu".



Wed Dec 5 2007


Indro Neri said...

I read that baabath is tripe. Is it cow's (beef) tripe?

Fazli Sameer said...

yes, it is