KT. Achaya’s book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, has an entire section on idlis and dosai. The first mention of idli, or ittali and iddarika, as it was once known, is traced to Shivakotyacharya’s Vaddaradhane, a 920 CE Kannada work. Idli’s journey is enmeshed with the evolution of the stone grinder, once an ubiquitous piece of kitchen equipment in homes, especially in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
“Two important household devices, the aattukkal and the ammikkal, both grinding stones, used to play important roles. The aattukkal, a round, wedge-shaped stone with a pit in the middle, and a kuzhavi, a cylindrical rounded stone, were used to grind rice and dal for idli-dosa. The ammikkal was a flat, rectangular piece of stone used to grind or crush chutneys and masalas,” writes Rajashree Arun in The Hindu. Gradually, though, people started opting for the convenience of mixer-grinders.
Though the electric and tilted versions of the wet grinder are still used in kitchens in the south, the motorised idli-dosa wet grinder is now entering more homes across India as people rediscover indigenous culinary wisdom. Initially, food enthusiasts would use it to prepare batter; since the pandemic, they have begun experimenting, churning out pesto, masalas typical of the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP) community, and even wet ground chocolate. In fact, artisanal chocolate makers in India have been using a modified version of this wet grinder to craft small batches. L. Nitin Chordia of Chennai-based Kocoatrait, a zero-waste, plant-based chocolate brand, says the grinder helps preserve the essential volatiles and flavours. And there is no fear of metal contamination.
For many, the wet grinder offers a serving of nostalgia. Tejaswini Adhikari, 58, a Mumbai-based social researcher, has vivid memories of a neighbour who had the original stone grinder. The grandmother would supervise the batter and masala grinding. “We used to love the dishes that would come from their house, especially the fluffy idlis and chutneys. The grandmother always used to say, grind ingredients to such an extent that they have a kajal-like consistency,” she reminisces.
When Adhikari started cooking, she opted for a mixie and batter from the supermarket. One day, she saw her neighbour using a wet grinder and decided to get one not just for herself but also for her sister, who took it to the US. “My sister has all sorts of stories about how the diaspora there is hooked to it,” says Adhikari.
She has had the wet grinder for nearly a decade but would generally use it once a month to make batter. Over the last one-and-a-half years, though, she has started experimenting. “As you cook more, you apply your imagination a lot more. In Indian kitchens, one piece of equipment does not serve just one purpose, and the wet grinder allows you to diversify with chutneys, masalas, even cake batters,” she says. “There is something rather soulful about cooking with equipment that has such an old legacy.”
Pari Vasisht, a home cook in Mumbai, started using the grinder four years ago. “While earlier the wet grinders were bulky, today one gets smaller versions. You also get tilted versions but the stone is much lighter. The heavier the stone, the more efficient the grinding.” The number of orders for batter has gone up since the pandemic, given the renewed interest in fresh, home products. Vasisht even recommends the wet grinder for large amounts of pesto.
So, what sets the wet grinder apart? “A mixer grinder breaks the grain, while in the wet grinder it gets crushed. The wet grinder has a stronger motor plus stone crushers, hence heating is less, even if used for a longer span. The nutrients aren’t denatured and the nutritional value is retained. The batter made in the wet grinder is lighter and fluffier as compared to the mixer grinder,” says Vasisht.
Chennai-based Payoshni Pal, 31, started using the grinder at her sister-in-law’s behest. “With the stone grinder, you end up making a lot more than usual. But it is not a problem as you can store the batter for four-five days,” says the homemaker.
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Around two years ago, she saw a YouTube video on it being used to make chocolate. Pal decided to try her hand at it and added cacao nibs to the grinder. The process involves 15-16 hours of grinding, so she started giving one-hour breaks during it—the process took nearly a day. “But it came out nice and shiny and I didn’t even need to temper it. I kept the paste overnight for it to get fermented and the resulting chocolate was really good,” says Pal.
Tamil Nadu-based Karthikeyan Palanisamy of Soklet, which claims to be India’s first tree-to-bar chocolate maker, says chocolate grinders need to run for four-seven days. “So, chocolate makers in India work with highly modified machines, which have the same rotating stone principle but with options to control the temperature, speed and pressure,” he says.
Though it may not be suitable for large quantities, the wet stone grinder offers an easy entry point into the artisanal chocolate business. “Today a hobbyist can make chocolates on weekends, thanks to the wet grinder,” says Chordia.
He also runs bean to bar chocolate making courses for both professionals and amateurs—now online during the pandemic—, who want to pick up chocolate making skills. “A lot of our students are making chocolates using this equipment. They start on Friday evening and the chocolates are ready by Sunday evening.” Six to seven of the students, who attended the online courses have now started their own small chocolate labels in India. So, this weekend, why not try your hand at a turmeric, jaggery chocolate to keep your immunity up and creativity alive?