In a tea shop in a nondescript village near Palakkad, K. Pradeep discovers a flatter version of the idli, almost like a mini dosa, whose secret restaurateurs and chefs have not been able to decipher.
A narrow, ribbon-like road that deviates from the Palakkad-Coimbatore Road at Puthussery (or turns from Kootupathai on the Palakkad-Pollachi Road) takes you to Ramasseri, hardly eight km from Palakkad town. It’s nearing noon when we stop at Sankar Vilas, one of the two tea shops in this nondescript village whose only claim to fame is its idlis.
Sankar Vilas is at one end of a row of tiled building strips that house a quaint grocery, a few houses and a rice mill. A few women, with colourful plastic pots, wait their turn at the water tap. A dog wakes up, stares, stretches, and goes back to sleep. The palpable silence is broken by the occasional vehicle that passes by and the strains of a vintage T.M. Soundararajan film song from the radio at the tea shop.
A bleary-eyed, ruffled Jeevanandan, who runs this tea shop, ushers us inside. He still has customers gorging on leaves full of soft, puffy idlis. Two men, who have finished a rather late breakfast, discuss the daily newspaper. While serving his clients Jeevanandan offers us a hot cup of coffee and talks about this tradition of making Ramasseri idlis that have become popular.
“I took over when my father (Sankaranarayanan) died,” says Jeevanandan. “This shop must be more than 75 years old. I have heard my parents say that the Ramasseri idlis date back to over 100 years. It is believed that the Mudaliars, the community to which I and the other families in this village who make idlis belong, migrated from the neighbouring districts of Tamil Nadu. We have been following a tradition handed down to us by the elders. We now have only four families and two shops that sell these idlis here. In the past, this village had handloom. Now it is the idlis.”
Jeevanandan says the tea shop is not profitable. He sells 500 idlis on an average every day. A set of two idlis costs Rs.8. “We make them twice a day, depending on the demand. What helps us survive are the bulk orders we get from hotels, weddings and other functions. During this time, families get together and make them. We don’t give them the chutneys; they have their own combinations like stew and sambar.” The voices of TMS, P. Susheela, and P.B. Srinivas take turns to keep us company.
What makes the Ramasseri version of the idli so special? Jeevanandan and the others in the village still make idlis the same way their forefathers did. They use rice, black gram, fenugreek and salt to form a batter. “The trick, the taste, of the idlis is in the way we cook them,” Jeevanandan says, even as he moves to serve chutney to new customers.
What strikes you first is the unique shape of these idlis. The Ramasseri version is a trifle flat, unlike the more common ones; it is almost like a mini dosa. It feels fluffy, spongy and soft.
Jayan, a carpenter, stays close to this village. He is at Ramasseri on work and has been eating these idlis for many years now. “Though I stay nearby we don’t make these idlis at home. We have tried, but they never come close to what we get from these families. Only they know the ‘trick’,” he says breaking a big piece of idli, and mixing it well with two varieties of chutneys and the podi (a powder of pepper, roasted rice, black gram and red chilly) before shoving it into his mouth.
Even restaurateurs and professional chefs have not been able to decipher the secret taste of the Ramasseri idli. “There is a popular story among our families that the recipe of the idli and the podi was handed down by an old woman called Chittoori Ammal. I’m not very sure about this. I was married into this family, and ever since I have been making this. I was ‘trained’ by my mother-in-law and the other older women in the family,” says Rajammal, Jeevanandan’s mother, and the oldest member of the clan.
It is noon and customers begin to dwindle. The shop opens as early as 4 a.m. and remains open till 9 p.m. every day. It is not unusual to see people queuing up and cars and vans halted under the tree close to the shop in the morning. “We have our regular customers from the village and the surroundings who come here almost every day. Then there are people from the restaurants in the city who come to collect their orders,” says Jeevanandan, as he gestures to us to follow him to the “kitchen”.
Jeevanandan stays with his family behind the tea shop. He leads us to the dark, small kitchen. Four fireplaces occupy most of the space. One of them is burning. Jeevanandan sits down and opens a large pot of idli batter. He takes four round clay steamers (like the ganjira), almost eight-inch in diameter, tied tightly on the mouth with a piece of wet cotton cloth. He pours a ladle full of batter on these net-like cloths on each of these hollow-bottomed steamers and stacks them one over the other. Then he places them on a large pot on the fireplace. The fire logs flicker and it is hot inside the kitchen. He then covers them with another blackened pot.
“Earlier we used only earthen pots. We used to have expert potters who made them for us. But now we don’t get that kind of quality. Most of them tend to break in the heat. We have substituted them with aluminium pots now. But the round steamers are still made of clay. In the past only three steamers were stacked together. Since we need to make large numbers we use four,” Jeevanandan explains even as the idli gets steaming.
Once they are done, he lifts the cover, removes the stack of steamers one by one, places a wet leaf, usually of the jackfruit tree, over the steaming idli and turns the steamer upside down, sliding the idli into a huge tray. “The firewood we use is only from the tamarind tree. It takes hardly a minute or two to make an idli. But it’s tough during summer to stay close to the fire right through in a hot kitchen.”
Vallakutty, a spinster, who walks with a slight shuffle, has been working in Sankar Vilas for “more than 20 years.” “She reaches here by three in the morning and by seven makes around 300 idlis and leaves. We take over after that,” says Jeevanandan.
There was a time when Ramasseri idlis were packed and carried abroad. It used to have a shelf life of three to four days. “Not any longer,” confesses Jeevanandan. “At the most it may last a day. The quality of rice has gone down. Earlier, we used to get it from our own fields or buy from those who cultivated rice. Not any longer. The taste starts right from the boiling of paddy itself. In fact, we used to use parts of the husk to make the podi. We now depend on the grocer who chooses the variety of rice we need. We use electric grinders and mixers to make the batter and the podi. This has also affected the quality.”
We sit inside the shop as Jeevanandan places fresh-washed banana leaves before us. The fluffy idlis fall on the leaf. The coconut and tomato chutneys give the green leaf and the snow-white idlis a dash of brightness. The podi is served last. For the next few minutes we are not sure if Jeevanandan said anything or if TMS was still singing. The peppery-hot podi hits you hard, yet you keep going for that lovely, tangy taste. We clean up the leaf in quick time, and buy a parcel of idlis to take home.
Now I will believe those who told me of the separate queues at the two tea shops in Ramasseri from the crack of dawn. Watching the idlis being steam-cooked in those mud pots, arranged in a three-tiered method till they are slipped on to the green leaf before you is an experience.
In minutes our car has sped past the little village. The TMS songs are heard no more, and the aroma of steamed idlis cannot be felt. I touch the packet of idlis in the bag — some reassurance.
HOW IT’S MADE
The ingredients and process are almost the same as those for the usual idli.
Soak one kg of good parboiled rice and 150 grams of black gram in separate pots for some hours. Wash and remove the skin of the gram and grind it with a large pinch of fenugreek to a smooth, thick batter. Wash and grind the rice separately and combine the two. Add salt to taste and stir well. Cover it and set it aside for 10-12 hours, overnight preferably, to ferment. Use this batter to make the idlis.