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Ode to the idli: the batter options

March 30, 2016 was World Idli Day in honour of the southern staple on the dining table

The idli and the dosa have been the breakfast staples in south Indian households, the idli more so. Because it is steamed it is more easy on the palate, especially for kids. Doctors would often prescribe an idli diet. And for the toothless, it’s comfort food.

Even as the many fast food joints dole out burgers and pizzas by the hundreds, the humble idli has been able to retain its popularity and rule the roost.

Many families down south follow the weekly ritual of grinding batter for a week to be made into idlis for the first couple of days and then into dosas for the rest of the week when the batter becomes diluted. Nowadays, many people prefer to have tiffin rather than rice for dinner. So the idli finds a place on the dinner table too.

All those who are not too good in the art of idli-making or are bored with home-cooked idlis, throng the restaurants in their neighbourhood to have a taste of the idli-dosa-sambar-chutney combination. Many idli shops have sprung up. They serve melt-in-the-mouth idlis with varieties of chutney and heavenly sambar and fiery ‘gun powder’, followed by the cool and delicious jigarthanda. A recently opened outlet in Coimbatore boasts 60 varieties of idli.

There are also the roadside stalls at strategic points to cater mostly to the working class and bachelors. I love the way idlis are made there. A white cloth is spread over the mould, with about 15 to 20 depressions. Batter is poured on to the cloth over the pits, and in 10 minutes steaming idlis are ready.

My husband, the staunch south Indian that he is, always opts for idli on eat-out days, harking back to his training college days in Bombay. Not for him the surfeit of chaats, bhelpuris or burgers. And idli, made with readymade dough of course, has been a saviour to my husband and son as they fend for themselves in Chennai. Idli-sambar is a must-have for north Indian tourists when they visit the south. Our Punjabi neighbours in Delhi in the 1970s and early 1980s used to relish my mom’s idli-chutney-sambar. And then they started making their own version — and we became the guinea pigs.

On long trips, nothing is more fulfilling than a box full of idlis dipped in molagappodi mixed with gingelly oil. To be washed down with filter coffee from a flask.

More often than not, the idli is likened to a jasmine flower for its soft texture and hue. Just as a successful marriage should have the right combination of fights, arguments and making-ups, so should the idli have rice and dhal in the right proportions, else what you get is a stone for an idli.

These days, the plain idli has metamorphosed into popular variations such as the Kanjeepuram idli, rawa (sooji) idli, mini idli — pint-sized idlis, mostly 14 in number, floating in a river of sambar. Likewise, the dosa has had its reincarnations — the bulbous oothappam and the porous rava dosa. The masala dosa has a hundred options for fillings, the most common among them being the potato masala with the right amount of zing.

Besides, there are other innovations like the chocolate filling for those who have a sweet tooth, set dosa (which, as in the case of potato chips, you can never have just one, as it comes in pairs).

The adai-avial-vellam (jaggery) combo is to die for. Not satisfied with the existing options, someone poured dosa batter, seasoned with green chillies, ginger, curry leaves, mustard and coconut bits into appam moulds and came up with kuzhi paniyaram. Of late the aappam-thengapaal-kurma combination is gaining ground. Kushboo idli, spongy and bouncy, and thattu idli are other options. And for the health-conscious there are the ragi, oats and millet varieties of idli and dosa.

The leftover idlis take the form of idli-upma, podi idli fry and masala idli, to name a few. Kids love these much more than the plain idli.

Some gourmands observed March 30, 2016 as World Idli Day. It is remarkable how a small white steamed cake can play such an important role in a common person’s life. I believe that the idli is verily one of the best gastronomic finds in contemporary times.

As long as the people’s love affair with the ubiquitous idli continues, there will be no dearth of options too for the steamed wonder.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 11:23:13 AM |

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