Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Big Idli Post

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.)

3. Soaking

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

4. Grinding

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

Before fermentation

5. Fermentation

The batter in its lidded container is ready to nestle down overnight for its natural fermentation. What you need is a cozy warm spot. Depending on location and season, that can be tricky in North America. 

In homes with full size ovens and where the ovens have a light, the most convenient place to ferment the batter is probably in the oven (turned off!) with just the oven light turned on to generate some warmth. (I don't even keep the oven light on all the time, I do it for 3-4 hours, then turn it off overnight, and the next morning may give it a few more hours with the light on if needed.)

If the oven doesn't have a light, the oven can be turned on at the lowest setting for several minutes, then turned off and the batter placed in the lukewarm oven. 

Other ideas are to find a warm corner of the kitchen (near the stove perhaps) and drape the batter container in a quilt. 
After fermentation

The next morning i wake up to this, batter that has risen and is frothy and bubbly and ALIVE. 

After fermentation and a stir

6. Steaming the idlis

Idlis are steamed in special molds with concave depressions. Mine are made of stainless steel with 4 plates that stack together so I can steam 16 idlis at a time. I spray the idli plates lightly with oil spray and ladle the batter in, being careful not to over-fill the batter. 

I use the instant pot for steaming, because my idli stand fits into the instant pot container perfectly, and I can use the steam setting for 10 minutes for perfectly steamed idlis. But any lidded pot will do, and steaming can be easily done on a stovetop too. 

Once the steaming is done, lift the idli rack out carefully and set it aside for 2-3 minutes. Then the idlis can be lifted off one by one with a spoon with minimal sticking. 

Enjoy freshly steamed idlis as soon as possible. But they are good at room temperature too. If idlis get cold, they are very easily refreshed by popping them in the microwave oven for 20-30 seconds with a sprinkle of water. 

Freshly out of the steamer

What do you do with the dozens of idlis you just made? Win friends and influence people by sharing them around. On the slim chance that there isn't an ongoing pandemic, invite loads of friends for brunch. You can freeze idlis easily- they reheat beautifully in the microwave. You don't have to use the batter for idlis; refrigerate the idli batter and use it for dosas and uttapams on subsequent days. 

With refrigerated idlis, you can make a quick idli fry by cutting each little idli in thirds and pan-frying the idli fingers in a teaspoon or two of oil until golden on all sides. 

I like to make hybrid dosa-adais. Adais are savory pancakes made with mixes dals and grains, where the batter usually isn't fermented. My family prefers dosas to adais; I like that adais are nutritious and made with a variety of things in my pantry that don't get lots of use, like millet grains and chana dal. So I make adai batter and mix it 50-50 with idli/dosa batter made above, and then make dosas that are the best of both worlds. To all the mamis out there who are raising their eyebrows, I take full responsibility for this non-traditional concoction, but do give it a try. 

The idlis I describe here are the traditional, original ones with rice and urad dal. Of course, idi variations abound. I flipped through my little cookbook called 100 Tiffin Varieties by Mrs. S. Mallika Badrinath and found a wealth of idli options including Kanjeevaram idli, rawa idli, green gram idli and bajra idli, to name just a few. 

As a cook, I have my bucket list of dishes that I want to get just right. And I can honestly say that making soft idlis is a huge source of joy for me every single time.