Without a blemish

Without a blemish

The idli may not look as seductive as the glistening, roasted masala dosa, but few things leave a southerner as contented as a bite of the steaming white idli, writes Vijayasimha V

They say a man is known by the company he keeps. One can say the same of the idli too. Yes, it’s the accompaniment that smears the idli with its character. You can pick holes in the vada quite literally, but on its own, the spotless white idli is without blemish. The idli may not look as seductive as the glistening, roasted masala dosa, but few things leave a southerner as contented as a bite of the steaming white idli smeared with chutney, greased with podi or sodden in piping hot sambar.

A chef can seldom go wrong with it unless he’s disgruntled and is letting off steam. That’s when it is maligned and called names like ‘brick’ and whatnot. Hence, the average South Indian, beginning his day with the breakfast staple, coffee and his favourite newspaper, can’t fathom how his idli got such bad press recently.

His guess would be that when British historian Edward Anderson put down the idli as the most boring thing in the world, his idli or his knowledge about it, was half-baked.

The idli is seldom mentioned alone. It’s always idli chutney, idli sambar or idli podi, a la, fish & chips or gin & tonic. And add the vada, you have a ‘holesome’ breakfast.
The idli and its accompaniments complement each other and nowhere is this more evident than in Bengaluru’s famous standup cafes or Darshinis as they are popularly known.

People go back to the counters, again and again, to top up the chutney and sambar, which is replenished without complaint or extra charge. Some cafes give the chutney an exalted position by stationing a staffer exclusively to dispense the dip which he does by seating himself in a corner, plunging his ladle into a large vessel and emptying it on to the idli that’s craving for company.

People are touchy about how they consume the idli. It’s usually served with chutney and sambar, but some prefer just chutney while others swear by only sambar. And another type prefers to smoothen the gulp with podi and oil.

Whatever the choice, the accompaniment serves to coax the idli down the throat and gives it a taste lift. Like the condiment vendor at Chennai’s Mylapore boasting of his mulagai podi says, “If you had planned a two-idli breakfast, this mulagai podi will make you devour four!”

(This column looks at some food fetishes and secrets from a city of gastronomes and beyond.)