Idli is the typical South Indian breakfast and tiffin food, a light and fluffy cake shaped like a convex lens, made of rice and urad lentils.
Preparation of idlis has two stages.
The first stage is the preparation of the batter, for which rice and lentil have to be ground in stone grinders with water. In the olden days, this was hard boring work performed with special granite mortars and pestles (usually) by the womenfolk. When the age of electricity came, restaurants switched to using huge industrial grinders, but it wasn't until the 1980s that compact electric wet grinders were introduced in India, bringing a collective sigh of relief from all traditional South Indian housewives. The batter has to be ground to an extremely fine consistency, and the urad turns to a slippery fluid helping to lubricate the stones while the process goes on. The batter is left for a day or so until it ferments and becomes a light and aerated mass.
The second stage is the actual cooking. First the batter is poured into several plates which have round depressions in them. The plates are stacked on each other and placed inside a cylindrical vessel with a little bit of water in it. The vessel is closed, and the idlis are steamed for about fifteen minutes, after which the idlis have a nice bulge. Their readiness is tested by poking a toothpick into them and checking if it comes out with nothing stuck to it. Apparently in the old days they were placed on cloth and steamed in giant woks.
Traditionally they were served with coconut chutney or the more humble spicy milagai powder, though now it is common to associate them with sambhar. Little children and grownups not afraid of ridicule will sometimes eat them with sugar. Although restaurants will insist that one plate of idli (consisting of two pieces) is the norm, home made idlis are usually consumed in large numbers with great gusto.
Idlis have a lot of good things going for them :
- Once the batter is made, it's a simple job to churn them out by the dozen.
- They're good to eat both hot or cold.
- Left over idlis can be fried or soaked in curd to make a light yummy snack.
- Since they're soft and easy to chew, easily digestible and contain no fat, they are good food for sick and recovering patients.
- Todays idli batter can be recycled into tomorrows dosa.