Everyone has heard of crepes: The thin, crispy pancakes are famous across the world. Though no single origin story is agreed upon, almost everyone agrees they are distinctly French. Except, according to my grandmother, thousands of miles away on the southwest coast of India in a town called Bhatkal, the Nawayath have been making their own thin crispy pancake — uppos, also spelled appos — for centuries.
The Nawayath consists of only a few thousand people, but, as descendants of Arab traders who settled there in the 8th century, they have a distinct language, culture and cuisine from the rest of India’s roughly 200 million Muslims. And after years of hearing my family recount that history, I have realized they are intensely proud of their culture.
My maternal grandparents are Nawayathi. Growing up, my siblings and I would eagerly look forward to weekends, when my Nanima –– the Nawayathi term for grandmother –– would make all of our favorite foods.
Long before I had heard of crepes, my favorite breakfast item was Nanima’s uppos. Thin, soft in the middle, crispy on the edges and topped with melted butter and sugar, it was like heaven in my mouth.
Years later, on an outing with friends, I tried a crepe. Everyone I knew raved about them, so I was expecting a lot. They certainly delivered, and I thoroughly enjoyed my crepe in the moment. However, as I sat back after breakfast, the crepe began to feel heavy in my stomach. Whereas I could easily eat five of my grandmother’s thin, light uppos without feeling stuffed, even one crepe overfilled me.
In recent years, my grandmother has begun spending much of the year back in her Nawayath town in Bhatkal. During the months she is away, I always miss her cooking –– especially her uppos. For the past year, however, she was forced to stay in California because of the COVID-19 lockdown, and I took advantage of our time together by asking her to teach me how to cook traditional Nawaythi food. The simplest dish, she said, is uppos.
Unfortunately, learning from her is not quite as simple. She does not measure anything out nor does she have one way of making a dish. She just adds ingredients until it all smells, looks and tastes “perfect.”
When my grandmother taught me how to make uppos, she ordered me to watch as she put seemingly arbitrary amounts of each ingredient into the blender. As much as I pestered her for measurements, I could never get more than a vague “you know, try one cup of water and a couple pinches of salt” or “I think four eggs might work with a cup of flour” or worse, “you just have to know these things.”
So, despite my grandmother’s amusingly dismissive attitude toward set measurements and loud protests against my methods, I wrote down a recipe as best I could and later tested it on my own, remaking the uppos with different measurements until I had successfully duplicated my grandmother’s.
A college student could not ask for a simpler recipe. Put two cups of water, three eggs, a cup of flour and a pinch of salt into a blender and blend it all thoroughly. Then, ladle about one-third of a cup of batter into a 9-inch buttered pan over medium-high heat. Shake the pan in a circular motion to allow the batter to spread until paper-thin, then let it cook until the edges are crispy. Finally, I like to sprinkle a generous amount of melted butter and sugar over the uppos –– my favorite topping. A close second is Nutella with strawberries or bananas, a variation which I will acknowledge I may have borrowed from the French.
Learning my grandmother’s recipe sealed the deal: Uppos are much better than crepes. Though they share essentially the same recipe, uppos are very simple, are lighter and thinner and have a melt-in-your-mouth consistency that makes them, in my opinion, tastier.
After years of hearing stories of my community’s origins, I now have a theory that I would like to add to the existing set of legends surrounding the origin of crepes. I imagine a Frenchman came upon the Nawayath town in Bhatkal and, upon tasting the greatest breakfast dish he had ever tried, took the recipe home and presented it to his family.
And here I present it to you.
Maryam Khan SC ’23 is one of TSL’s food columnists. She is a writing and rhetoric major who enjoys reading, writing and all kinds of food.