There was once a time when Kanchi idlis were a much-sought after dining table item in the southern parts of Kerala. As the name denotes, Kanchi idlis came into Kerala right from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. There’s another exotic item too from Kanchipuram that Malayalees have embraced with open arms - the Kanchipuram silk saree. Now, one does not know whether the two totally unrelated items are linked by a common factor. The only truth is that if Kanchipuram sarees are soft and rich and feel good, so do the idlis. They are soft, fluffy, tasty and feel good on the tummy.
Strange as it may sound, it’s quite ironic that while the Kanchipuram silk is here to stay, the idlis are slowly vanishing, though they are still hot items in their homeland. Kanchi Idlis are totally dissimilar in looks from the common variety that’s popularly served all over, though the mixes that go into making the batter are more or less the same.
To this day, the Kanchi idli is considered as holy as the prasadam that’s handed over to devotees in temples. In fact, idlis were the main prasadam in Kanchipurm temples. The practice is still continued in many of the centres of devotion in the tradition-bound temple town.
The Kanchi idlis have quite an interesting history. From temples, the food entered the royal palaces and then to the abodes of humble mortals. It’s quite possible that the royal kitchen started making their own idlis when what was got as prasadam from the temples were not sufficient to feed the large army of hangers-on and the families that lived in the palaces then.
Or, maybe, the taste of the idlis was incomparably different and delicious that it had to be made in the palace kitchens. Like for example, there are temples and temples where aravana is offered as prasadam, but there’s nothing to beat the distinctively different flavor of the Sabarimala aravana. Suffice to say that it was this delicious taste of the Kanchi idli which made it a huge hit and brought it out of the temples to palaces and homes and even to the neighboring states.
The idli is served only on special days and special occasions in Kanchipuram, especially as starters just before the main wedding menu. Kanchipuram folks say that it’s been only a few decades since this idli prasadam became a main dish in households.
In all probability, the Kanchi idli must have made its way into Travancore kitchens along with the royal visits from Kanchipuram. The idli was till recently considered a palace specialty in Kanchipuram. Even to this day, it’s one of the top billed royal food items. But it’s strange that Kerala which has always accepted the best of cuisine from the world over and integrated it into its flavors, has not considered the Kanchi idli as a special number. This could also be why the idli has slowly disappeared from the menu cards in Kerala.
However, experts say that the idli has not disappeared completely. It’s still around, although in different avatars. The “pidichukettu”, that’s still popular in Travancore, is just another version of the Kanchi idli, only that it bears a different name.
How it’s made
The idlis are moulded after temple gopuras. To bring out this shape, bamboo moulds are carved to look like gopuras and the batter is poured into plantain leaves placed inside the bamboo mould and then steamed.
But this tradition has given way to steel dishes where large quantities are steamed and then cut into smaller pieces and served.