Saturday, 25 May 2013

Idylls of Idlis

Idylls of Idlis

Nothing pleases the family more than an idli program on a weekend. And on every vacation, whether we are holidaying in Switzerland or Sydney or Solapur my husband has to say, “If only we got garamagaram idli and chutney now, this would be the best holiday ever!”

Even on business trips, while other guests make a beeline for the live station pouring pancakes, I check out the idlis at the breakfast buffet of the hotel– and marvel at how Indian business travellers have spread the “I” word with such a missionary zeal from Ludhiana to Manila.

The idli, I suppose needs no introduction, so I am going to talk about the technique and tips to make the ‘fluffiest pillowy clouds’ of idlis that my daughter recently tweeted about.

Usually made with 2 portions of rice and one portion of urad dal, idlis are made according to jealously guarded family recipes.

Some use a combination of 1 measure each of boiled rice, raw rice and urad dal, others use only boiled or only raw rice and urad dal. I have even read a recipe from a foodie friend, which uses 1 part urad to 8 parts rice.

I suppose the less the urad content, the lighter the idli. Cooked rice or poha are also used to aid the fermentation.

Things have become very easy with the availability of ‘idli rava’, which is coarsely ground boiled rice or cream of rice.

The lightness of the idli also depends on how the batter is ground. In the old days  rice and urad dal were ground in a round ragadao , rubbu gundu or sil batta. The huge batta, almost the size of the crater of the sil would be rolled in a rotating fashion (not pounded), grinding the mixture and aerating it at the same time. This added to the fluffiness of the idlis.

For quite some time now commercial grade and even domestic grade wet grinders have been available.  These run on electricity and have a real stone sil batta inside a metal casing. On my last trip to India, Bharat Bhai (remember him?) almost sold me a tabletop wet grinder!

I said no - who has the time and space for these behemoths?

Especially, if the same effect can be achieved by grinding the batter in a hardy mixer like Sumeet, selecting the four-wing blending and mixing blade that will grind slowly, with the top two blades grinding and the bottom two pushing the mixture above.

Remember, the longer it takes to grind the dal, the more the aeration!

The next factor contributing to the lightness is the fermentation.

Always let the idli batter ferment overnight and if the ambient temperatures are cool, wrap a thermal blanket around the container. Better still, the batter should be stored in a large metal container to allow for the rising  (and not an uprising where the batter may overthrow the lid). This container, when kept in a warm place, will conduct the heat right into the batter. The fermentation will also create its own heat.

Melbourne is cool almost throughout the year, so I preheat the oven to 50 degrees, switch off the oven and keep the covered patila or steel dabba of batter in the oven overnight.  Sometimes I leave the oven light on – this is enough to warm the heart of the batter and allow the fermentation and also the sourness to develop.

The batter is ready when it has risen and you notice hundreds of tiny air bubbles when you stir the batter, which should taste and smell freshly sour.

Another giveaway is the way the container sounds when you place it on the kitchen counter. If it makes a muffled thud, the batter is ready! Open the lid to see if I am telling the truth.

I also am a firm believer that when the batter is ready, you can harvest the idlis for that one occasion only. There is no – “put away any remaining batter in the fridge and make more idlis later”. If you think you can’t use up the batter when ready, ferment only according to requirement and store the rest in the fridge to be taken out to ferment in advance when required.

If you have fermented more than you can use, make it into uttappa or gunta panagulu, or even dosas, but not idlis…

The last factor that will ensure your ideal idlis is the steaming process. Never steam for more than 10-12 minutes and if you are using the pressure cooker to steam the idli plates on a stand, don’t use the weight. Instead, pop a katori or a small steel bowl in place of the usual weight, so that the steam escapes and does not fall back on to the idlis, thereby wetting them.

Traditionally, the idli plates are lined with squares of muslin cloth. The idlis can then be easily peeled off the cloth and their shape can be retained, but more importantly, they remain soft and moist due to the steam-dampened cloth. I have a good mind to try using small squares of baking parchment… but can these idlis get any softer?

Once the idlis are done, leave them to rest for 5-6 minutes before opening the cooker. When they come in contact with cold air outside, you will see the idlis developing holes on the surface before your eyes – thereby incorporating more air.

Best served hot, idlis can be re-heated in a microwave by sprinkling a bit of water and heating covered.

The accompanying chutney is something we excruciate about and can’t compromise on, so we eat idlis only in those restaurants that have a reputation for good chutney! The coconut must not be desiccated, only fresh will do! The chutney can’t be too hot, not too runny, not too finely ground- we’re just too difficult to please when it comes to the chutney!

There are a lot of versions, with the roasted chana dal, without it, with peanuts (famous ‘Vaishali” restaurant in Pune) and yes the dry spice powders like gun powder, mulaga podi, pud chutney. I have served the idlis in the photos with some flaxseed chutney with a drop of sesame oil. 



2 cups idli rava
1cup white split urad dal
½ cup cooked white rice (leftover will do)
½ teaspoon methi
Salt to taste


Place the idli rava in a largish bowl and pour plenty of cold water on it. Stir the rava and let it sediment so you can drain the water gently. Allow the idli rava to bloom (covered) for a few hours.

Pick, wash and soak the urad dal in water along with the methi seeds for about 3-4 hours. Grind the urad dal and methi seeds along with the cooked rice with a little water as in the description above. Sometimes I add powdered methi seeds to the batter before fermenting.

Mix the ground urad dal, rice and methi with the soaked rava. Add salt to taste and mix well. Adjust the consistency of the batter- it should not be too thick, nor too runny. I tend to keep it a little thicker than what I need, and later adjust the consistency by adding warm water.

Cover again and keep it in a warm place overnight. When the batter ferments, spoon it into oiled plates of an idli stand and steam the idlis as described above for 10-12 minutes.

Coconut Chutney


2 cup fresh grated coconut
½ cup roasted chana dal
1 small onion- chopped
1teaspoon fresh ginger
1 tablespoon urad dal
3-4 green chillies (or more)
5-6  curry leaves
¾ teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
½ teaspoon oil
Salt to taste

For the tempering

1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
A pinch of hing


In ½ teaspoon of oil roast the urad dal till golden. Then add the chopped onion and chillies and sauté slightly. Add the curry leaves and ginger. Remove from heat.

Assemble the coconut, the roasted chana dal, sautéed onion mixture and lemon juice and salt to taste in a blender. Add some water and grind it while retaining a grainy texture.

Pour a tempering (tadka) made of the oil, mustard seeds and hing over the chutney and serve!


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  2. I loved reading the post.Such a great story!Love idlis though am a punjabi but this remains one of my favourite breakfast!

  3. Thanks for such great explanation on how to make soft idlys. Going to try this method tomorrow for the yummy fluffy pillowy cloud idly!

  4. I love reading your post. Great idli recipe. Please let me know where idli rava is available in Melbourne. Any specific store?

    1. Thank you Lalitha! Idly rava is available in most larger Indian groceries... there are several in the South Eastern Suburbs - Venus in Glen Waverly, Bombay Music Stores in Box HIll, India at Home in several suburbs... Do let me know how yours turn out!

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