Savour this: How the humble idli is slowly but surely gaining universal appeal
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Savour this: How the humble idli is slowly but surely gaining universal appeal

The simple idli comes in a lot of variations and adaptations throughout the world - from household adaptations like sambar idli and idli upma to modern-day adaptations like podi idli (mini idlis tossed with ground chilly).

more lifestyle Updated: Oct 22, 2017 10:42 IST
Gitika Saxena/Press Trust of India, Mumbai
Idli,South indian food,Food
The basic ingredients of idli are raw rice, boiled rice and urad dal.(Shutterstock)

What better than starting the day with a plateful of idlis - the soft and fluffy round steamed savoury cake - served usually with a bowl of piping hot sambar and tangy coconut chutney. Today, chefs and idli connoisseurs feel that this simple snack is fast gaining universal appeal and is here to stay for generations to come. But not much is known that idli can in a variety of shapes and sizes and is served with a wide range of side dishes apart from never-miss sambar and chutney.

Apart from revealing some interesting preparations of idli, the experts also throw a bit of light into its history. “Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka claim to have invented this recipe. There are references to the making and existence of idli from the 8th century,” Sujan Mukherjee, the executive chef at Chennai’s Taj Coromandel Hotel, told PTI. “But many of us will be surprised to know there are claims that idli did not originate in South India at all. Some food historians believe idli was derived from some steamed rice preparations from Indonesia. It is believed that this recipe was invented by the cooks of the Hindu kings who ruled some parts of Indonesia,” he says.

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The second claim contradicts this, as some of food historians claim that idli was introduced to South India by Arab traders, who had been in constant contact with the southern coast. “There are works that mention about a flat boiled rice preparation that had a bland coconut paste and this preparation was developed upon by the locals to the present- day idli and coconut chutney,” Mukherjee says.

The simple idli comes in a lot of variations and adaptations throughout the world. Some of the classical varieties are - Kanchipuram idli (tempered with black pepper and coconut) and Ramasserry idli (a flat and soft idly from Palakkad in Kerala), the chef says. “There are modern-day adaptations like mallipoo idli and podi idli. Mallipoo in Tamil refers to jasmine, the idli gets its name as it is as soft as a jasmine. The podi idlis are mini idlis tossed with gun powder (ground chilli),” he reveals. There are also household adaptations like sambar idli (idli immersed in sambar) and idli upma (tempered idli cubes with chopped onions and chilies).

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All the idlis are prepared by steaming method but in a few snack preparations they are fried after steaming. The basic ingredients of idli are raw rice, boiled rice and urad dal, but their ratio changes from household to household and state to state. Some varieties also include sago or flat rice to enhance the softness of idli, Mukherjee says. The idli appeals to all as it has the good bacteria which are good for the gut, says Devavrat Kamath, the son of the owner of Cafe Madras in Matunga, a hub for South Indian delicacies in Mumbai. “That is why even dieticians recommend idli to someone who is sick. It is the safest to eat since it has good bacteria,” he stresses.

He adds that in their households, they prepare different variations of idli, like cucumber and jaggery idli (by mixing these in idli batter) and also a “teekha wala idli”, by adding green chilly and coconut paste to the batter. Customers also request for idlis cooked in jackfruit leaf and some joints have already started making it. “It’s called khotto idli...few people make it at home and give it to restaurants. You have to make a cup of jackfruit leaf, fill it with a different idli batter, not the usual batter, and then steam it,” Kamath says.

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Delving further into the varieties of idli, chef Mukherjee says the Ramasserry idli is a unique preparation found in Palakkad and in some parts of Coimbatore. “This idli is traditionally made in a mud pot with boiling water covered with muslin cloth. The batter is poured flat over the muslin cloth and cooked over wood fire. This idli has become extinct in many places but there are a few eateries and families in Palakkad who still follow this recipe,” he explains. “It is the flattest idly ever made and is so soft and flavorful,” the chef says.

“This dish goes equally well with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian accompaniments. Though it is usually had with sambar and chutney, it can also be had with a tangy fish curry or a flavourful mutton kuruma,” Mukherjee says. “This dish can easily be served as a starter too, of course with a few tweaks. If you are a South Indian and you are down with a fever, this is the only dish your mom feeds you for breakfast and dinner,” he says. “In my culinary experience many guests who have come to Chennai for the first time want to taste idli and dosa first as they have heard so much about them. The fact that some restaurants that specialise in idlis are spread across Europe, America and South East Asia makes it evident that idli has a universal acceptance,” he says.

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First Published: Oct 22, 2017 10:37 IST