All eyes on this idli

How far would you go for an idli? As the autorickshaw took a turn to the dusty stretches of a summer-scorched village in Palakkad, I wondered. It was, after all, idli; plain, familiar, consistently unremarkable. What could be different? A few days ago, I had two at an ‘authentic vegetarian’ restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram, their taste or texture not distracting me even from random phone swipes. But this was different. I was heading to Ramassery, a village about 10 km from Palakkad town, to experience what is undeniably its most Googled export — idlis. There was a bit of history, there was hype and expectation. I had also skipped breakfast to make space for them. I was hungry.

Sree Saraswathy Tea Stall, run by 64-year-old Bhagyalakshmi Amma, is now the only commercial space where Ramassery idlis are served. The idlis are not in the familiar size, or shape. They are flatter, a touch fluffier than the average Kerala thattu dosa, the snack integral to the state’s street-food culture. They have meshed patterns since they are prepared on clay containers with threaded frames. The texture is different; they are not distinctly soft, but they don’t leave that grainy aftertaste most of your regular restaurant idlis come with. The taste, again, is not strikingly unfamiliar. After a couple of eager initial bites, I start with the accompaniments — two chutneys (kaaram and coconut), sambar, and a scoop of podi. What they do together with the idlis, really, is the thing.

Krishnan, an employee at the tea stall — “I help her,” is how he puts it — tells me that the podi is quite in demand and also sold separately. There are stories served with food, narrated by Krishnan and Bhaskaran, a jaunty village elder. Stories about how the tradition of idlis was carried over by generations of the migrant Mudaliar community, about famous visitors, people who come in from far to have the idlis, about a time when eating out was also a social event in the village. As the second serving is on, I get past the taste of what is clearly a fresh blend of flavours. Now, I get a sense of the occasion.

Bhagyalakshmi is a fourth-generation member of the community engaged in making Ramassery idlis. She has seen the number of idli outlets in the village come down over the decades; she is holding on as the tradition fades. “The idlis are also prepared in six homes in the village. They are all part of the family. In fact, when there is additional demand, we prepare them together. There’s no competition among us,” she says.

There’s a demo

In her soot-smeared kitchen, Bhagyalakshmi asks helper Sunitha to demonstrate to me how the idlis are made. Sunitha starts by placing a steamer pot on woodfire — “It has to be tamarind wood,” she says. Batter is poured on a wet cloth spread over the containers that are placed one above the other. The stack of containers is then covered by another pot. On a regular day, with two stoves lit at a time, Bhagyalakshmi and her helpers make about 100 idlis in an hour. As we speak, the women are also preparing for a packed next day. They have an order for 3,000 idlis; with two helpers, it appears a tough task but Bhagyalakshmi says work is no longer work. “I was married into this family when I was 16. It was my mother-in-law who taught me how to make these idlis, and I’ve been doing it for close to 50 years. I’m up at 5 am every day, and if there’s a bulk order to deliver, I start at 3 am. It doesn’t feel like work anymore,” she says.

The villagers are accustomed to the fame the idlis have brought, but some of them are also amused by the attention. Bhagyalakshmi smiles when I ask her about the secret ingredient. It’s the regular combination — rice, salt, black gram and fenugreek — that goes into the batter. What’s not regular is the preparation. “There’s no secret really; we just make them the way they should be,” she says.

The plate’s filling up

The business is expanding. Now, Bhagyalakshmi takes orders from other districts and sends helpers to these locations, including Ernakulam and Kozhikode, to prepare the idlis. In March, they made quite a start in Kochi, at a stall on the sidelines of an international book fair. There are concerted efforts to push Ramassery idlis as a brand and to find new markets but Bhagyalakshmi says the core business is, still, rooted in the village and its ethos. “We sell idlis at Rs 6 each, and if ordered in bulk, at Rs 5. Yes, we could sell them at Rs 10 but that won’t be fair, especially on people who come from other places hearing about the idli,” says Bhagyalakshmi.

Bhagyalakshmi has five daughters, all married and none interested in taking over the business. She, however, doesn’t appear too worried about the tradition possibly coming to an end with her generation. “It takes a lot of effort and dedication to keep this going. Many people who wanted to start on their own have asked us about the preparation of the idlis. We have shared the details but they’ve all dropped the idea,” she says. For now, the idlis are something she just has to make — a routine that’s also a way of life.

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All eyes on this idli

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