It is amazing that the unassuming South Indian idli can evoke so much passion among its connoisseurs. For a simple steamed rice cake, it is an iconic preparation of South India and the heated debates take place over its origin. It is amusing that such a pleasant and bland food came to be born in a region famed for its traditionally spicy cuisine but somehow, the art of the perfect idli is as much a vital part of the culinary traditions of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as those other dishes.
There are several theories about the origins of the idli. One theory I put no stock in posits Arab origins, while other more sensible ones suggest Indonesian influence if not necessarily origin. It must be kept in mind that food preparation changes over time with new technology and the cumulative creativity of generations. Thus, pinpointing the origin depends also on one’s definition – is the home of the idli the place it finally took its modern form or is it where the first spark of creativity occurred? Also, how much variation has there been that this distinction even matters?
As all idli devotees know, the first written evidence of anything resembling idli comes from Vaddaradhane, an early 10th century work in Kannada, by Shivakotiacharya. The author describes a preparation of ground urad dal (black gram). Several other medieval works such as the Lokopakara and the Manasollasa mention this dish, albeit with slightly varying details. This indicates that the idli evolved over eleven centuries, as is to be expected. However, the essence of the idli – urad dal batter – makes this a valid point of origin for the dish.
The controversy comes from the observations of KT Acharya, a chemist and a food historian. He argued that these recipes leave out three essential details of the modern preparation – the admixture of ground rice, the fermentation, and the final steaming of the batter until fluffy. While this is true, it must also be noted that these early mentions of idli are not exactly cookbooks – Manasollasa, for example, is an encyclopaedia, and Lokopakara is a similar compendium of local knowledge covering astrology, ayurveda, religion, veterinary science, horticulture, water management, divination, and cooking. It is not implausible that a complete recipe was not given.
KT Acharya does not provide any compelling evidence to firmly locate the birth of the idli in Indonesia except to say that references to the preparation begin to resemble the modern form only after 1250. Given the Southeast Asian island’s long tradition with fermentation and its close links to India during the period, it is possible that the idli was brought to India by traders. It may even be that the idea went to Indonesia from India and returned, altered for the better.
This is not impossible but seems a circumlocutious theory for no good reason. The admixture of ground rice may not have been mentioned in the earliest records but references to the addition of lentils certainly exist. Such variations are not only common today but also indicate that it is not beyond imagination that rice could have also been added.
Similarly, the history of fermentation extends back millennia and was hardly unknown in India. In fact, ancient Indian texts reveal a fair understanding of fermentation and its various stages though not in the language of Louis Pasteur. Nonetheless, evidence points to the fermentation of rice, barley, millet, mango, grape, palm, apple, sugarcane, the bark of certain trees, and more. Several methods of fermentation were also known – depositing the fermenting vessel in the earth, exposing it to the sun, and burying it in a mound of grain. It is difficult to imagine that the fermentation of urad dal would have been beyond the gourmets of Chalukyan Karnataka.
The third objection to an Indian origin of the idli is that steaming is alleged to have not been known to Indians. The primary source for this are the notes of a Chinese traveller to South India in the 7th century who complained that the locals did not possess steaming vessels. Yet steam cooking is an ancient art, the earliest archaeological evidence going back at least 35,000 years to the Aurignacians of the Upper Paleolithic era who cooked food by wrapping it in wet leaves. Several other methods have also been discovered – steam pits in Arizona, steam cookers of stoneware in China, and steam vessels made of thin cypress strips in Asia – but the tradition of wrapping in leaves is still prevalent in coastal Karnataka among the Konkani and Tuluva peoples. Additionally, the presence of other steamed preparations such as the modak suggest that Indians did not have to wait until the 13th century to learn steaming.
This lengthy exposition on the history of idli and the controversies surrounding it should be an indication of how seriously South Indians take their food. Anyway, without further ado, let us see how we make these amazing little drops of magic!
- Urad dal (blackgram) – ½ cup
- Idli rava (ground rice) – 1¼ cups
- Salt – 1 teaspoon
Preparation time: 13 hours (including fermentation)
Cooking time: 10 minutes
- Take half a cup of urad dal and wash it thoroughly. Then, soak it in water about two inches above the lentil. Ideally, let it sit for four hours but if you are in a rush, allow at least two hours for soaking.
- Strain the dal but do not throw away the water – you will need it shortly. Rinse your wet grinder thoroughly before use so that no old flavours are clinging to the stone. Put the dal in the grinder all at once and start grinding.
- Add a little of the water you had soaked the dal in earlier to the mix and maintain a smooth and fluffy consistency. This should take about 25 to 30 minutes, depending on the quality of the urad dal. Keep adding water as needed and occasionally stir the batter to ensure none remains stuck to the sides of the grinder vessel. You do not have to stand by the grinder the whole time but can check in on it every five to seven minutes. Do not allow the batter to get dry or lumpy.
- When the batter is ready, neatly remove it all from the wet grinder and put it in another vessel. Add the idli rava and salt to the batter and stir vigorously. Take care not to allow the formation of any coarse lumps. You may need a little water to aid the process.
- Cover the vessel and allow to ferment overnight.
Many consider the making of the perfect idli an art and some may even hesitate to tell you precisely how they make it. Everyone pretends to have some sort of secret formula or technique which makes their idlis the best. No doubt, cooking is an art and it is only with experience that you will be able to judge just how much idli rava you need for the urad dal batter or how long you must grind the urad dal or whatever else.
That said, in my own experience, the quality of the ingredients matters enormously in making the perfect idli. But first, what is a perfect idli? I cannot give you a scientifically rigorous answer but where I come from, the virtues of that white lump of goodness lie in its softness – the idli should break effortlessly and once dipped in chutney or sambhar, should almost disintegrate on its own in your mouth. The sad fact of the matter is that this depends heavily on the quality of the ingredients and not the cook; one sample of urad dal is fluffier than another sample, one batch of idli rava is coarser than another. An experienced cook can mitigate the effects somewhat by altering the ratio between the two but there is only so much one can do. So when you make your own idlis, always keep an eye on what ratio works best for you with the ingredients in your locality – my numbers are a sound approximation for the ingredients I get from my nearby kirana.
Another factor that affects the recipe is the weather. It takes more or less time to ferment the batter depending upon the temperature. If you live in a nice, cool place like Denmark or Norway, you might have to leave the batter in the oven overnight certain months of the year! On the other hand, if you live in sultry, tropical places like the Yucatan or Cuba, the batter will ferment within four hours and progressively get bitter after that. No need to panic – the climes of South India are hardly paradise either! But generally, if it is between 20 °C and 30 °C outside, roughly, fermentation will be an overnight process.
- The next day, vigorously stir the batter again; it would have fermented and settled somewhat overnight but you want it fluffy.
Technically, all that remains to be done is to steam the batter. However, this can be done in several ways. A popular method in South Canara is to put the batter in little pouches made of the leaves of a jackfruit tree – this imparts a slight yet discernible flavour to the idli and makes it simply amazing. Called khotto in the local language, it is my favourite twist to the basic idli.
Alternatively, you can put the batter in idli trays or small, short steel cups specifically intended for steaming idlis. This is the more traditional way but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi of a khotto 🙂
- Put your choice of container for the idli batter in a pressure cooker and steam for about ten minutes. Allow the pressure to dissipate and open the pressure cooker in about five minutes.
- Serve hot with chutney, sambhar, pickle, and/or coconut oil. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of the coconut oil as condiment but it does have its merits when applied to a hot, steaming khotto – with the smell of the jackfruit tree leaves added, it is most appealing to the eyes, nose, and tongue!
Stick to my ratio the first time you make idli and after that, play with the proportions. A higher percentage of idli rava will make the idli harder but too little and the idli will be mush.
Good adventures in the kitchen, and…buon appetito!