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The southern staple for breakfast, the idli, is not as simple as it sounds. There is a certain technique to it that any South Indian aunty will be proud of.
“Idli seria vanduda?” (Has the idli turned out well?) is a question every thoroughbred Tamil aunty will ask, irrespective of when, where or by whom ‘The idli’ is being made. It is not a casual question, mind you. Tried and tested techniques and years of hands-on field experience authorize the questioner to enquire thus. The grays on aunty’s head stand testimony to the years spent perfecting the art and science of idli-making.
Many households have aunties who are practically fanatical about their idlis. Any conversation with even an inkling of the syllable id…will perk up their antennae. In no time, they’ll be monopolizing the conversation, discussing the dearth of good ‘ulundu’ or tut-tutting new-fangled idli-vandalism in the form of ‘chilly-idli’.
When your insolent young one refuses to partake of those carefully nurtured fluffy white dumplings with the just the right restraint of salt and sourness, you may shrug and let it pass. But with aunty around, it is unthinkable! She will have a few choice words to dish out on all the pains that went into making this most nutritious, filling, comforting, safe, easy on the stomach, blah, blah, blah tiffin for him. And when the young one is likely to respond to her with “Eww, I hate this tasteless white sponge,” that he usually throws at you, you need to have the doctor on speed dial. In all likelihood aunty may blow her top at this sacrilege.
World-over idli devouts, dieticians even, swear by this mild on the palate breakfast meal. Fastidious aunties and paatis of yore continue dishing out this breakfast staple to their beloved uncles, thathas, pillais, ponnus, mapillais, perans, pethis….encouraging them to partake more than their fill, with tempting helpings of vengaaya sambar, which for some weird reason reminds me of wingardium leviosa; probably something to do with the feeling of upliftment post tucking into this combo!
From fast-food joints to humble street stalls, from five-star buffets to traditional wedding breakfasts served on plantain leaves, from Gujju bhais to Sardar puttars, everyone’s a sucker for Mr Idli!
Sadly, I have never been a fan of this frequent starrer of my snack-box at school. There they lay, staring up at me, smeared with a mixture of molaga-podi and til oil. I happily traded it with my pals for something… anything other than that! Long train journeys meant large boxes filled with the same to be served at every alternate meal. Of course public travel ensured I could fraternize with folks traveling with us and generously distribute my share to all and sundry.
Things changed when I got married and had kids. I realized what a savior a large stock of idli batter can be, when you have loads of chores and just want a quick-fix, no fuss, filling meal/snack, or what a sumptuous breakfast it could be when teamed with complimenting accompaniments of sambar, chutney, vadai and rava kesari.
Not simply with a flick of the hand do you turn out this revered South Indian breakfast or tiffin.
To make the lightest, roundest, fluffiest, snow white idlis – idlis which are accorded the highest accolade by discerning idli aficionados of, “idli poo madiri irrukku” (idli is flower-like in quality), you need to take the craft very seriously indeed, says aunty solemnly.
If they were to hand out PhD’s in Idli-making, aunty would no doubt have accumulated half a dozen of these with her in-depth research in this culinary field.
With years of training, the uncle of the house reposing on his easy chair, on getting a waft of the steaming idli will enquire, “Idli seria vanduda ma”, only to be snubbed with a, “Of course, seria vandudu ‘ena,” (of course it turned out well) from aunty who’s hustling to set up breakfast. As uncle expertly dunks the flower-light steamed preparation into aromatic drumstick sambar and contentedly tucks into the first repast of the day, aunty is busy critically examining it, peering through her bifocals. Even the Masterchef jury trio would be put to shame if they knew the high standards of scrutiny the humble idli was being put through.
With a sigh aunty exhales, as the idli is of just the right consistency, bounce, porosity, texture, lightness, color, shape, taste…hmm, yes, idli seria vandurukku! (idli’s turned out right!) I guess we could call her an idli-ist!
And I bet given a chance, aunty would be able to master the supposedly complex art of souffle-making, what with her mastery at idli-ing.
You may call out this bluff with,“The street corner Anna’s stall churns out equally good idlis, dozens and dozens at a time…obviously he hasn’t the time or perseverance for aunty’s intricate idli-making plots. And what about the branded Ready-To-Eat Idli mix or Idli-batter? What do you say to that aunty, huh, huh?”
Aunty just shakes her head, looks you in the eye and declares,
“There are, there will be idlis. They will be white, round and probably smell and taste palatable, but nowhere close to MY IDLIS…avalavu tan!”
P.S: If you are still hanging in there, read further to know about Aunty’s Idli Magic. And yeah, there is glossary at the end to help you with the Tamil terms. Vanakkaam.
No shortcuts here! And don’t even talk about grinding all the ingredients together at one shot – that’s just idli-blasphemy!
1) It begins with trial and error testing and selecting of the raw material, that is, boiled idli rice/puzhungal arisi and urad dal/split black gram/ulundu. Best bet is your neighboring South Indian Provision store. Go wrong with this and your idli shall turn out hard as cannon balls or fall flat as a pancake and sticky as well, warns aunty.
2) Next comes the equally crucial step: Measuring out the right proportions of rice and urad dal. Many swear by 3:1 or even 2:1 but aunty politely rubbishes them and insists on a 4:1 ratio of boiled rice to urad dal (and continues on a stealth mode to add an additional fistful of urad dal, stage whispering to explain how that extra handful makes her idlis extra soft and fluffy.
3) This is followed by repeated washing and straining, firstly the rice (which requires a longer soaking period) and an hour or two later the urad dal. Allow the rice to soak in sufficient water for about 6 hours and the dal for about 3 hours.
4) Now to grind the soaked ingredients. No mixie-shixie grinding, harrumph! Aunty endorses a heavy duty wet grinder. “You kids have it so easy, we did all this on those massive attu-kal-urals (stone grinders),” sighs aunty. I thought it wise not to comment that buying ready-made idli-batter at the local provision or superstore was even easier!
First grind the urad dal, reason being, the motor heats up after a while and urad dal responds to heat by fermenting more. Grind with constant addition of water (cold water during hot summers) till the dal is ground fine and has fluffed up considerably in volume and then extract this into a large container.
Next grind the rice. Now aunty is very adamant that idli batter needs to be ground separately and one must not use the same for preparation of idli’s cousin – Dosa. For the idli batter – the rice needs to be ground to the consistency of rawa/suji – not too coarse, not too fine.
5) That done, delicately transfer the rice batter into the large container having the ground urad dal batter. Add adequate sea-salt. How much? Aunty indicates half a fistful of the salt crystals or you could add a teaspoonful of table-salt for every measure of boiled rice you add. Mix the two batters thoroughly with a light hand. Aunty whispers that the hand that mixes the batter also influences the quality of the final product. Huh? She nods knowingly and says that when persons with higher body heat disposition mix the batter, the idli ferments more than necessary or turns rather sour…go figure! Alternatively, you could transfer the mixed batter into two separate smaller containers, again with enough space for fermentation.
6) Cover the vessel with a lid but don’t make it airtight. The combined batter should not fill more than half of the container’s capacity, to allow space for fermentation.
Allow to ferment for 6-7 hours. Aunty usually grinds her stuff late evening and allows fermentation to happen overnight.
Aunty discloses that she spends sleepless nights, waking up at intervals to assess the batter’s condition. During summer she does this periodic checking to ensure the batter doesn’t over-ferment due to the heat. If the batter has sufficiently risen, she gives it a brief whisk and pops it into the fridge.
During winters or during her stints overseas in cooler environs, she hovers protectively around the ground batter, swathing the container with old woolen sweaters and shawls, to keep the batter warm enough to achieve ambient temperature for fermentation.
7) Once the batter has fermented, give it a gentle whisk and either start making idlis directly or store it in the refrigerator.
8) Till date, aunty prefers to steam the idlis with her antique brass idli-steamer.
This involves an outer heavy tall brass vessel, idli plates and a domed lid. Aunty moistens a thin muslin/cotton cloth reserved especially for idlis (the thin cotton cloth absorbs any excess moisture from the batter that may otherwise affect the consistency of the final product). She spreads it over the idli plates and ladles out the batter into each of the scoops on the plates over the cloth. That done, the plates are placed into the outer tall vessel filled with a quarter volume of water that is already being heated up. Lid on, full heat on, the batter is steamed for 7-10 mins.
9) Lift the lid, take the plate off heat. Allow the steamed idlis to cool a bit, sprinkle with water and simply turn over a plate to transfer the now fluffy, steamed, light as flowers, idlis!
Piping hot idlis ready to be devoured with some mind-blowing molaga-podi or gunpowder, coconut chutney and sambar!
ulundu: split black gram
molaga podi: spicy chilly powder mix also referred to as gunpowder
vengaya sambar: small onion (shallot) sambar
avalavu tan: that’s all
vanakkam: a greeting like hello or namaste
Published here earlier.
Image source: pixabay
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