My idli recipe was requested, and I am happy to have a reason to note it down here in as much detail as I can. Idlis- those fluffy, savory, fermented rice cakes- are an iconic food of Southern India. I grew up in Southern-adjacent Maharashtra in Western India. Idlis are very popular in Maharashtra too. My guess is that they were introduced locally by the ubiquitous cheap and cheerful Udipi vegetarian restaurants that dot the urban landscape.
It is easy to see why idlis would be widely embraced beyond their native lands. The batter is made in vast quantities and idlis can be steamed in batches, ideal for feeding hungry hordes. Warm and hearty, idlis are traditionally eaten for breakfast. They hold well at room temperature and can be packed for picnics, trips and lunch boxes. Being plain and bland, kids like to eat them just as they are, but idlis can be served with a variety of chutneys and sambars and other sauces to dress them up in all sorts of flavors. Edited to add: Idlis also happen to be naturally vegan and gluten-free.
I grew up eating idlis not only in these restaurants but also ones made in Maharashtrian homes. While idlis are easy to find, fluffy, meltingly soft homemade idlis can be far more elusive. Unlike cooks in Southern India, Maharashtrian cooks are not steeped in idli culture and lore and skills from the time they are toddling around gumming a ghee-smeared idli. We did not grow up eating idlis for breakfast Sunday after Sunday, and with a vat of idli batter sitting in the fridge at all times. Making good idlis is something I've had to work on and figure out for myself. As it happened, I married a man of Southern Indian ethnicity and have picked up some idli tips (and a grinder!) from his family members along the way. (He's not a big fan of idlis. Whatever.)
There is quite some method and mystery to the idli making process. It is a little bit like making sourdough bread. The number of ingredients are deceptively few, and the method seems straightforward enough. But breads and idlis seem to have a mind of their own. Ingredients might be few but the factors are many- TIME is a big ingredient and then there is temperature, humidity; even the microbial activity in the kitchen comes into play. It is far easier to make a curry with 17 ingredients and get it right the very first time. Making good idlis takes some persistence and tinkering and luck. I've written posts about idlis before but these days I no longer need to add poha to add fermentation.
1. The ingredients
Idlis need only three ingredients but those ingredients are very specific ones and cannot be substituted, not if you're going for classic idlis. All of these are sold in Indian grocery stores and last for months in a cool, dry pantry.
1. Gota urad dal is urad dal (black gram/ matpe beans) that has the black skin removed and so appears white in color. I only use the variety that is round and whole, not the variety where the two halves of the dal are split. The special culinary property of this dal is that when ground or cooked it has an unusual thick, sticky texture. This makes it a key ingredient in idli and dosa batters.
2. Idli rice is a specific variety of rice optimized for use in idli and dosa batter- it is a starchy, medium-grained rice and is processed/parboiled to reduce the soaking time needed before grinding and to gelatinize the starch.
3. Methi or fenugreek seeds are ground into the batter to aid in fermentation and to obtain a good batter consistency.
2. The equipment
Idli batter is traditionally made with sheer muscle power and a manual grinding stone. The modern version of this contraption is the electric wet grinder where large conical or cylinderical stones churn together to pulverize the rice and lentils- an advantage of stone grinders over machines with steel blades is that less heat is generated in the grinding process. A wet grinder is one of those single-use kitchen appliances- not to mention a very large and heavy one. Many cooks rightly question whether it is worth investing in one of these.
Several years ago, my husband's cousin replaced her large Ultra Grind wet grinder with a more compact and newer version of the same machine. We happened to be visiting her and she offered to hand down her older machine which was in excellent working condition. I jumped at the generous offer and packed that beast up and nonchalantly checked it in at the airport on the flight home. TSA was baffled at this ridiculously huge and weird appliance with literal granite stones inside it; they opened the package and examined and X-rayed it from every angle, then apparently gave up and sent us, and the grinder, on our merry way.
Owning this grinder, and giving it precious countertop real estate, was THE thing that allowed me to be a regular idli-maker. It has been the gift that keeps on giving. The grinder has a large capacity and makes enough batter at a time to make 48 or more idlis. Even with the grinder being electric, just lifting the stones out and cleaning out the container needs strong arms.
(I have successfully made dosa and adai batter in my hi-speed Vitamix blender. However since I've owned this grinder, I have never attempted idli batter in the blender.)
In separate bowls, soak the ingredients for 6 hours. Some people soak the dal only for an hour. I get best results with longer soak times. Everything in my idli recipe is standardized, simply because of doing it dozens of times, and I tend to start soaking at noon, and grind the batter at 6 PM (after dinner) to be able to make idlis the next morning.
- 1 tbsp. fenugreek/methi seeds
- 4 cups idli rice
- 1 cup gota ural dal
Methi first: I start by adding the soaked methi seeds and the soaking water into the grinder. Grind it for 10 minutes or so, until the methi seeds are pulverized and frothy.
Dal next: Then add the soaked urad dal all at once, and 1/2 cup of so of the soaking water. Let the grinding commence. As the urad dal breaks down, keep an eye on it and add water 2 tbsp. at a time to help the grinding process along. In 20 minutes or so, the urad dal becomes a frothy smooth paste that is almost the consistency of whipped cream.
At this point, I scoop out the dal/fenugreek paste into a large container (I use a lidded stock pot), as much of it as I can without worrying about getting all of it out.
Rice last: Then I add the soaked rice to the grinder and start grinding it. Again, adding a little water when needed, I grind the rice down to a paste, only it won't be as smooth as the dal paste and retains a grainy texture. Stop and scrape down the sides of the grinder as needed.
Now I open up the grinder, remove the stones, scraping down as much batter from them as possible, and then empty out the batter into the container where I previously added the dal paste.
I add about 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt to the batter and mix it in (a spatula will do; no need to use your hands unless you prefer to).
The idli batter you're going for is of the Goldilocks variety- not too thick and not too watery, about a cake batter consistency. The "feel" for this comes about with some trial and error. The best idlis come about when the fermented batter is the right consistency to begin with and when you don't need to add water the next day before steaming the idlis.
|A peek into the grinder|
|After fermentation and a stir|
6. Steaming the idlis
|Freshly out of the steamer|