As usual we were cribbing about the prolonged summer irrespective of meeting in an air conditioned room. How we didn’t feel like eating, thanks to this unrelenting heat. The topic predictably drifted to food and our unanimous choice was cold curd rice and the ubiquitious idli. My niece who indulged in the culinary conversation spoke loftily about the idlis in her in-laws’ home. “Throw an idli up in the air and it is so light that it will suspend in mid air before it submits to gravity with a gentle thud,” she said with tremendous conviction. I kept dreaming that night of idlis orbiting in space for a long time before bowing to the inevitable, with aliens floating around biting off large chunks of this delectable dish.
We might not make gravity defying idlis in our home, but they are light and fluffy, and even a non idli person like me has grown to like home made idlis. There are various combinations and people swear by them. The proportions are debatable, some use the 2:1 ratio, others 3: 1, so it is a question of personal choice.
Where would we be without the ubiquitious idli? Or for that matter, dosais or sambhar? Nowhere in the country do we have such a wide range of breakfast dishes, but the idli-dosai tops the list. This staple food of the South is a universal favourite despite the stereotyped l jokes on the idli. I remember one beautiful South Indian actress was labelled “idli” in a magazine edited in Delhi.
Our counterparts from other parts of India have adopted idli-dosas as part of their culinary repertoire, much the same way as we have, their chaats, phulkas or rosogollas. While I maintain that not many South Indians can match the prowess of our North Indian sisters in making light as air phulkas, chapattis or parathas, it is commendable that they have learnt the knack of making good idli-sambhar-dosai-chutney. But, for heavens sake why are dosais called dosas?
It is interesting to go through the historicity of the idli. To quote K.T.Acharya, food historian, the idli has actually been mentioned in Vaddaradhane, a writing in Kannada, in AD 920, as part of the eighteen items served by a lady to a brahmachari when he visits her home. Thereafter, the poet Chavundaraya, in AD 1025 divulges the recipe for idli, as urad dal soaked in buttermilk, and ground to a fine paste, mixed with the clear whey water from curds, and spiced with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida powder before shaping. Surprisingly, urad dal which is the main ingredient of the idli is not mentioned anywhere in the ancient literature. The Manasollasa of 1130 AD describes the iddarika as made of fine urad dal flour fashioned into small balls fried in ghee and spiced with pepper powder. The old writings do not describe the lengthy grinding or the fermentation so the idli as we know it now, has evolved probably in the last few centuries.
It is amazing how many variations have evolved from this simple tiffin dish, but I am not sure that I approve of the hybridisation. For instance we have not made a beeline to restaurants serving 30 different varieties of dosais, like paneer dosais, spinach dosais, mixed vegetable dosais and so on. One irresistible variety is the delicious keema dosais served in our Club!
A very popular item is the rava idli…which is shrugged off by some as nothing better than compressed uppumav! Anxious to research the origin of the Kancheepuram idli, I marched into the kitchen of Saravana Bhavan in Kancheepuram, and I was told by a couple of elderly cooks with impunity, that this idli did not originate in Kancheepuram! More varieties, include adukku idli, sandwich idli and so on…This is the day of fusion food, and if you feel like innovation and have the flair for it, why not?
One of our “scientific minded” friends frowned at my casual description on how idlis are done. He was unwilling to accept the recipe in toto despite sampling our idlis. His scientific mind plotted a methodology….the amount of water the dals and rice were soaked in, the number of hours, and what stupefied me was the number of revolutions the grinder had to make to result in perfect idli batter. The urad dal was ground with first a cup of water and then a sprinkling through the grinding process, and, with the right number of revolutions it rose like a leavened batter, and resembled whipped cream. Our friend was the butt of jokes, when he advised that all this should have been recorded in my recipe book in an organised manner.
When he invited us for high tea, he served us idlis, you could have knocked me down with a feather, to see idlis nestling together in a casserole dish, white as snow and the texture unbelievable..porous and soft. Today I wish I had taken him more seriously, and noted down all his findings… as he passed on last year.
When Murugan idlis opened shop we rushed to taste the wonderment of mallipu idlis his brand.. We never got to enter the restaurant as there was a mile long queue and our rumbling tummies reminded us that we could not stave off the hunger pangs any longer.
My mother will swear that the batter made by hand on a large stone mortar and pestle and steamed in the conventional brass vessel using square mull pieces for the idli batter to be poured in, was the best ever! The labour saving devices we have today are welcomed by all of us and I thank God that modern technology has made it possible for us to feast on our delicacies with minimum labour, even attempting microwaved idlis when we are rushed for time!