Driving past paddy fields touched with gold, and swaying palms, we reach Ramasseri, a dusty, nondescript village about eight kilometres from Palakkad, in time for breakfast. It is 8.30 am, and the village is still waking up from the celebrations of the temple festival the previous night. Yet, a line of swanky cars is already queuing up beside a small joint with bright green walls and a signboard bearing the name Sree Saraswathy Tea Stall, The Ramassery Idli Kada.
Is it an idli or a dosa? An idli, insist locals. This is the famous Ramasseri idli, a fusion of the two. Soft and fluffy and the size of a pancake, the Ramasseri idli with its distinctive texture and taste has put this little village on the food map of India.
From 5 am to 11 am the Ramasseri idli is made non-stop at the ‘tea stall’, one among the three or four small eateries on the roadside. A no-frills joint, it attracts diners from across the State and outside. The two women, busy in the kitchen, have little time for small talk. Vijayakumar PK, the owner, says the stall is 200 years old and that Smitha Vijayakumar, his wife is the fifth generation of women continuing the tradition of making the Ramasseri idli.
Smita pours the dough on square pieces of cloth, stretched over a circular sieve-like clay steamer placed on aluminium pots. As she works, she explains how many of the families have roots in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and most of them were weavers.
Story behind the idli
The local story is that the idli was first made by Smitha’s ancestor, Chittoori Ammal to make ends meet when weaving failed to get enough patrons. Initially sold to labourers and farm workers in the village, the idli could keep for a week without spoiling. But not any more.
Smitha says that is because the quality of the rice and urad dal has changed. Earlier, they used to mill and use paddy from their fields. “Rice and urad dal are soaked overnight, then ground. The proportion and ingredients are a family secret,” says Smitha, adding that they make the batter everyday.
The pots and the clay ring to hold the sieve-like net used to be made by local potters. The sieve was made with fishing nets made of cotton threads. When fishing nets switched to nylon and synthetic threads, the women began plaiting cotton to make the net.
The batter is poured on the dampened cotton cloth on the earthen steamer. Three are stacked, one above the other, on a blackened aluminium pot on the gas stove. Then it is covered with another aluminium pot.
Till a few years ago, the idlis were made on firewood stoves and earthen pots. “Only firewood of the tamarind tree was used. However, all that is extremely difficult to buy nowadays. We have to move with the times,” she says. Now there are not enough potters to make the pots and rings. Only the circular steamers, chipped and aged, are still made of clay.
As we speak, steam rises steadily from the pots. Ten minutes later, the one on the top is removed and hot idlis are slid on to a leaf set on a plate. Served with fragrant, creamy coconut milk stew, coconut chutney, tomato chutney and a fiery podi , the idli melts in the mouth.
About 600 to 700 idlis are made every day and on weekends it increases to 1,500. Smitha has travelled to various places to make the idli as part of events organised by the Government and private organisers. They also cater to weddings and private functions. “We have been to Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode as part of fêtes,” she says. “Wherever we go, the Ramasseri idli is a hit with customers.”
Given the dish’s popularity, recently, for the first time, a branch of Sree Saraswathy Tea Stall was opened in Guruvayoor.