Yearning for the ideal idly

Yearning for the ideal idly

It is a breakfast food in the morning, a light lunch in the afternoon or a snack in the evening. Idli, the popular South Indian ‘rice dumpling’, is for all times and all ages. Rice grits and urad dal in a 2:1 proportion are ground together in a thick batter and left to ferment naturally overnight. In fact, the idli is one of the earliest products of biotechnology.

From history’s kitchen

In the conventional idli-making process, portions of the batter are placed on a muslin cloth held in depressions on a metal tray and steamed in a closed vessel. Typical idlis are eaten with a coconut chutney and sambhar or with a special coarsely-ground powder called molaga podi doused with ghee or oil, popular in Tamil Nadu.

The first mention of the idli in literature is in the Vaddaradhana of Sivakotycharya, a work in Kannada in AD 920. It is referred to as iddalige and is one of the 18 items served to a brahmachari who visits the home of a lady. Later, idli is frequently mentioned in various works of Kannada literature down the centuries.

Chavundaraya (940-989), a military commander, poet and minister in the court of the Western Ganga dynasty of Talakad, in his work Chavundaraya Purana also makes a reference to idli. He describes it in some detail as urad dal soaked in buttermilk, ground to a fine paste, mixed with clear water of curd, spiced with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida and then shaped.

King Somesvara III in his book Manasollasa  —  an encyclopedic work of 100 chapters on food and dietetics written in AD 1130 — describes the iddarika as made of fine urad flour fashioned into small balls and then spiced with pepper powder, cumin powder and asafoetida.

In all these references up to AD 1250, three elements of modern idli-making are missing: the use of rice grits along with urad dal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness. In fact, the making of idlis has been constantly evolving. Many idli variations have developed over the years.

No rice? Give us rava instead!

The Kanchipuram idli is popular in the temple town of Kanchipuram and is quite different from the usual idli. Its ingredients include cumin, peppercorns, curry leaves, ginger and asafoetida. The best place to taste this idli would be in and around the Devarajaswami temple in Kanchipuram.

The rava idli, made of wheat grits instead of rice, was invented by the popular restaurant Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bangalore. During World War II, when rice was in short supply, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms experimented in making idli using semolina and thus the rava idli was invented. It is fortified with cashewnut, coriander and tomato.

Thatte idli or the king-sized idli, is popular in parts of Tumkur, particularly in restaurants along the highway. One Udupi-style restaurant on Residency Road also serves it in Bangalore. In contrast to the thatte idlis, you have the mini idlis, popular in some Chennai restaurants.

For the new generation there is fried idli popular in Saravana Bhavan and other restaurants in Chennai. Idlis are cut into small cubes and fried till golden brown. Mustard, cumin seeds, add asafoetida powder are fried in oil, onions are added and fried followed by tomatoes and turmeric, salt and finally ketchup. Garnished with coriander leaves, this is served with onion raitha.

Mallige (jasmine) idlis are popular in Mysore. They are softer than the other varieties of idlis. The combination of ingredients used in making mallige idlis include rice, urad dal, cooked white rice, poha or puffed rice and curd.

I’ve saved the best (in my opinion) for the last and that is the Sanna or the spongy, white Goan and Mangalorean variant. Apart from rice and urad dal, sugar and a fermenting agent, are added. Coconut milk is sometimes added to fortify it and the batter is allowed to ferment overnight. In the past toddy was used as a fermenting agent which in turn gave the sanna its unique taste. Sannas are popular among the Goans — both Hindus and Catholics, and the Mangalorean Catholic community.

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