Why don’t we celebrate this staple of south Indian menus?
A fluffy disc, barely the size of your palm, and yet it stands like a giant unshakeable rock in the culture of south India. I am talking about the humble idli (idly, if you please), without which your day is incomplete, and yet no one ever talks about it in exalting terms.
We are always in awe of the biryani, which is oily and expensive, or the ghee roast dosa, equally cholesterol-laden and mindlessly expensive. We are always in awe of complicated dishes and exotic cuisines and write books about them. Chefs and food columnists are now celebrities in their own right, making regular appearances on TV to give out the secrets of their recipes to the masses.
And yet, no one has ever celebrated the idli, even though waking up to a morning without idlis is as good as waking up to find the toothpaste missing. Why? Is it because idlis are easy to make? I don’t think so. Making tea requires no special skill — throughout the country, especially up north, it is mostly made by 12- or 13-year-old boys working in roadside shops — and yet tea is almost considered liquid poetry. That’s because tea is an addiction. You need to have your fix at specific times of the day, and therefore it is toasted.
The idli, on the other hand, is a necessity, just like the toothpaste. Each morning when you wake up, you take it for granted that the tube of paste will be standing upright inside the mug in the bathroom. It is the same with idlis. Anything you take for granted is not worth sparing a thought about — which is why I haven’t yet come across a single ode to the humble idli even though I have been living in Chennai for nearly 11 years now.
My association with the idli goes back to my childhood in the Hindi heartland of Kanpur, where parathas and puris are staple breakfast. I must have been five years old when I bought my first pair of idlis — a family from Kerala ran a canteen in the school. One piece of idli cost 25 paise back then, and on days I missed breakfast at home, my mother would slip in a few coins in my pocket so that I could have some idlis. Meanwhile, at home, idlis would often be the Sunday-special lunch. Mother would soak the rice and dal, father would take the mixture to the wet grinder, while I would watch, with glee, the batter swell in size with every hour of fermentation. Then, on an idli pot purchased by my father from Madras in 1977, the idlis would be steamed. The entire house would be sprayed with a sour delectable smell. As a rule, I would gobble up the first 12 idlis, scooping them out with my fingers. I had no patience to wait for the sambhar or chutney — the steam from the idlis was accompaniment enough. Hours later, when it was time for the Sunday movie on television, I would have a second round of idlis with sambhar and chutney.
The idli may be commonplace in south India but it remains a delicacy in the north, where young couples still fall in love over plates of idlis they order while spending time in local restaurants. It is difficult to imagine a mushy conversation over naan and dal makhani, or even biryani for that matter. A pair of idlis, on the other hand, is not only light and non-intrusive but also lets you linger in the restaurant. You can go on sampling the sambhar and keep asking for refills — very few eateries will deny you the privilege.
It was because of my love for idlis that I chose to move to Chennai, and not any other city, in 2001, when I got tired of my existence as a reporter in Delhi. I wanted to eat idlis — fresh off the aluminium pot — to my heart’s content. Even today, whenever I see the steam rising from idlis, even at a roadside stall, I stop to eat a couple of them. Next on the agenda is to write a book on the history of the idli, a dish that unites the north and the south and continues to be a strong symbol of national integration. Please don’t steal my idea.