Day in the Life: Putu Mayam Seller

27 September 2017

Malaysia has thriving small entrepreneurs and also a rich local food history, including market stall owners such as this putu mayam maker.

The humble idiyappam, better known as putu mayam in Malaysia, is a popular South Indian breakfast. But here, the steamed rice vermicelli swirls typically served with a generous dusting of brown sugar and grated coconut, are enjoyed any time of day.

Ramasamy Palaniappan, 57, has been tirelessly selling putu mayam for the past 30 years. He’s watched how changing food trends and lifestyles has affected demand over the years, leading to fewer sellers on the road.

“I remember 30 years ago, people used to wait outside their houses with plates while listening intently for the putu mayam seller’s horn,” recalls Ramasamy. “Once the putu mayam seller arrives at their residential area, he would go from house to house, fill up the plates with idiyappam and collect money.”

“Nowadays, such a thing is very rare. People do not have the time or patience to wait like that anymore. Now, the putu mayam sellers park their motorcycles and wait for customers to come,” he adds.
Ramasamy’s interest in selling putu mayam came after observing a seller in Sentul peddling the street food day and night. He eventually approached the seller, named Letchumanan, and asked if he could teach him the tricks of the trade to start his own putu mayam business. Letchumanan kindly obliged.

And Ramasamy has never looked back since. Like most sellers, he started off selling putu mayam on a motorcycle. He eventually grew his business, and now has his own putu mayam stall in Pasar Sri Johor, Cheras.

Ramasamy is also one of the few putu mayam sellers who prepares his idiyappam from scratch. While he used to do everything by hand, nowadays he uses a mechanised idiyappam press to form the loose noodle patties at his home in Ampang.

For this, he usually buys 50kg of high-quality Vietnam rice and grinds it in a flour mill until fine. The resulting rice flour is then mixed with hot water to form a dough. Ramasamy kneads the dough by hand until soft, then feeds it in sections to the idiyappam press. This is where the magic happens: fine white strands come out in swirls as he steers the press in circles.

Finally, the formed idiyappam is steamed until cooked. According to Ramasamy, making idiyappam is a tedious process. He prepares around 3,000 per day, which takes at least three to four hours. Hence, he does all his prep work the night before with help from his son.

Also a putu mayam supplier, Ramasamy sets aside around 200 idiyappam to sell at his own stall, while the rest are supplied to other putu mayam sellers.

At Pasar Sri Johor where his humble stall stands, most of his customers know Ramasamy by name. His business starts as early as 5.30am every day, and he usually sells out by 10am. On days when he has leftovers, he’ll go around on his motorcycle to sell them off.

While he serves his putu mayam the traditional Malaysian way with a serving of light brown sugar and freshly grated coconut, Ramasamy reveals he has his own unique way of enjoying idiyappam – frying it.

“Most people eat it with brown sugar and grated coconut. Some dip it into spicy curries. I love to turn idiyappam into ‘fried mee hoon’ as the texture of idiyappam is exactly like mee hoon. Just pound some garlic and chilli, add anchovies and greens, chuck in the idiyappam and fry them up like meehoon,” he says, grinning.

Ramasamy admits that his line of work is tough, but what keeps him going is his passion. He firmly believes that putu mayam holds a special place in Malaysians’ hearts and will continue to do so in many more generations to come.

Visit Ramasamy’s putu mayam stall at Pasar Sri Johor, 1 Jalan Jelawat, Taman Ikan Emas, 56000 Kuala Lumpur (012 224 9493). Open daily, 5.30am-12.30pm.

T.K. Letchumy Tamboo
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

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