Round, chubby and soft. Yes, we are talking about idli, the part-rice, part-urad dal steamed South Indian cake, which should easily be the healthiest breakfast in the world.
With sambar for best friend, idli’s ability to break down starch and enhance the body’s metabolism with its unique style of fermentation makes it a favorite among the health conscious too.
Untouched by oil, the idli has crossed geographical boundaries to find pride of place in all homes, irrespective of caste or creed. With sambar or wet and dry chutneys to match, the idli today has innumerable avatars - rava idli, ragi idli, vermicelli idli, oats idli and non-veg idli, to name a few.
But the art of making soft and fluffy idlis is no gourmet specialty. Women down the ages have perfected the skill of making the perfect idlis. However, a wee bit of miscalculation in mixing and matching raw rice and urad can make the delicacy hard and flat. The measure of a good South Indian’s culinary skills is tested by the size and softness of the idlis he or she can turn out.
How idlis are made
Everything begins right from the time the raw rice-urad dal combination is ground, separately of course. Any small variation in the measure of water added can make or mar one’s idlis. Long before the mixie and the grinder made their triumphant entry into Indian kitchens, women used to grind the ingredients on grinding stones into a smooth batter. The measure of water that went into washing the last trace of the batter off the grinding stone would define the idli’s softness. The tricky ingredient is the urad dal. The smoother the urad batter, the softer the idli. The softest idlis can be blown away by a breeze, goes the kitchen myth.
Four parts of raw rice to one part of urad dal make the combination. These two are soaked for about four to six hours, then ground separately and mixed together to form a thick batter which, when kept overnight, turns double in volume. This is how idlis are made in homes. But the style changes when catering to large numbers. The rice is washed, dried and pounded. It’s then sieved and the fine rice powder is mixed with the required quantity of water and urad dal which when left overnight to ferment, yields soft idlis the next morning.
In those good old days, idlis were poured onto special leaves placed on moulds. Only leaves from the Indian tulip trees were used for this. This way of steaming the idlis was special to the southern parts of Kerala. People up north used fine cloth instead of leaves as batter holders. Then came the gleaming and shiny idli moulds in steel into which the batter was poured directly. A bit of oil was used to grease the moulds. Call it a facial for idli! Idlis in steel moulds thus looked round, lovely and shapely.
With demand, came innovation and the idli metamorphosed into glass idli, leaf idli and what not. Idli batter poured into glass moulds and steamed became glass idlis. Zip down to Karnataka, you get a sort of idli steamed in special leaves. The size and shape vary.
Once Kerala had a variant called “Kanchi”, which is now history. Kanchi, originally from Kancheepuram, used to take close to two hours before it was cooked. Perhaps it was the time factor which could have sent Kanchi into oblivion. Kanchi was mostly given as prasadam at temples. Looks like it’s being revived in certain temples.
It’s raining idlis now. The “health” fetish also could be a reason for this craze. The ordinary idli has so many variants now…rava idli, ragi idli, uluva (methi) idli, ghee idli, rasam idli, button idli, sambar idli and an array of others. Multigrain idlis and non-veg too are now on the menu. Even as it’s fine to give idlis fancy names, with each ingredient added, the idli loses its pure taste. But no one seems to be bothered. It’s individual choices that matter. Even the traditional sambar has given way to chutney of various flavors….mint, coriander, tomato, cashew and the traditional idli chutney mixed in oil.
Once exclusive as a breakfast item, idlis are night-time bigs now. Thanks to thatttukadas (wayside eateries), idlis are a much-in-demand item for night-timers who eat them to the accompaniment of non-veg servings.
In Palakkad, Nair Joint serves the best of hot and steaming idlis. Krishnettan’s shop on BOC Road and the thattukadas near the KSRTC stand are also idli centres.
Idli tips for moms
Worried over left over idlis? Here’s a simple recipe. Heat some oil in a pan, add idli chutney and sauté it for a while. Cut idlis into bits and blend well with the chutney mix. Keep stirring for a while. Super!