The inimitable idli

The inimitable idli

“Have you given me my favourite idlis for tiffin?” I overheard my grandson asking his mother from the doorstep as he left for school one morning. Time and age have not waned its popularity, I thought to myself, as I nostalgically remembered my first association with this simple, humble and down to earth South Indian dish.

My first introduction to idlis goes back to my school days in the sixties, when it was practically a non-entity in Delhi and adjoining cities. My classmate, Kamakshi, being from the South, carried soft, white rice “cakes” (as I called them), sprinkled with red-hot spicy podi for her tiffin and we happily exchanged these with my alu parathas and mango pickle. It was a win-win situation for both of us.

I requested my mother to prepare idlis at home, but she pleaded ignorance as she had no idea what I was talking about. My fad for idlis faded with time, but surfaced again many years later when South Indian snacks began to make an appearance in some nondescript eateries.

Many years ago, enterprising housewives transported the Attakal (grinding stone) from South India to other parts of the country, and toiled hard to prepare idli batter at home, but as the popularity of South Indian food escalated, electrical grinders were invented to prepare the rice and urad dal mix at home.

Nowadays, readymade mix is also conveniently available at the nearest grocery store. Idlis have today also assumed an international status. It will not be far from the truth to say that the best breakfast is Indian, and the best Indian breakfast is South Indian with idlis topping the list.

Idli is a versatile food. While young mothers encourage toddlers to nibble at them for their good nutritional value, the elderly prefer idlis for their no-oil, cholesterol free property, and call it their “comfort” food. School children, and even working people, find this snack non-messy and easy to carry in their tiffin box. They are ideal as packed food for road and train journeys.

This popular snack has travelled a long, long way from South Indian kitchens to small roadside eateries and restaurants, and has confidently landed on the buffet tables of five star hotels, Foodies make a beeline for their all-time favourite mouth-watering snack, as they gorge guiltlessly on a bowl of idlis dunked in hot spicy sambhar.

Looks are deceptive, so do not get carried away by this plain Jane, humble snack. Unfazed by the presence of ornate, spruced up dishes with colourful and fancy toppings like tarts, doughnuts and cream puffs, the idli platter has stood its ground, firm and strong, against these new attractions with support from its three loyal companions — coconut chutney, sambhar and podi. Make no mistake, the inimitable steaming hot, white and fluffy, soft and spongy idlis are here to stay for a long, long time.