The first ever mention of idli in literature seems to have been in Shivakotyacharya’s Vaddaradhane, a Kannada work from 920 AD. as one of the eighteen items served when a lady offers refreshment to a brahmachari, who visits her home. K.T. Achaya mentions this fact in his seminal book, Indian Cuisine: A Historical Companion. He traces the evolution of the idli from a time when it might have been made only with soaked and ground urad dal—as mentioned in the Manasollasa dating back to around 1130 AD—to the increasing use of rice in the batter. “In AD 1485 and AD 1600, the idli is compared to the moon, which might suggest that rice was in use,” he writes.
Today, of course, there are several variants of this iconic dish, ranging from the Kanchipuram idli to the Kotte Kadubu idli from Karnataka, which is steamed in jackfruit leaves. Perhaps, one of the most unique variants is the Ramassery idli from Kerala, known for its flat shape and distinctive cooking style. It is believed that the idli makers were originally weavers, belonging to the Mudaliar community, who migrated from Thanjavur to the Ramassery village near Palakkad. As they travelled from one place to another, selling their wares, they carried these idlis with them.
“Made in an earthen pot, these idlis had a longer shelf life. These people would have it with a very special podi, mixed with coconut oil. That was easy to carry as well,” says Chef Regi Mathew, co-owner and culinary director, Kappa Chakka Kandhari, a Kerala speciality restaurant in Chennai and Bengaluru. “Later, when weaving moved from traditional to power looms, and the demand for the goods went down, these weavers started selling this special idli for marriages and other occasions.”
And that’s how the dish took on the name of the village it hailed from, and became famous as the Ramassery idli. Today, only four families in the village have managed to preserve this original recipe, and Kappa Chakka Kandhari has adopted one of them to ensure that the art of the Ramassery idli doesn’t go extinct. Mathew first came across this variant at tea shops in the village during his research prior to setting up the restaurant. At the Kappa Chakka Kandhari eateries in Chennai and Bengaluru, guests can watch the idlis being made—a process that is quite fascinating.
“The specialty of the idli lies in the quality of local water and the ingredients used. The families use only the best of rice sourced from Palakkad itself,” says Mathew. The batter, made with this rice, black gram, fenugreek and sea salt, is then poured onto a muslin cloth, which has been placed on the mouth of an earthen pot. “The soaking time of the dal is lesser than that of the rice. There is no contact with any metal surface in the entire cooking process, and hence these idlis have a longer shelf life,” he adds. Unlike regular idlis, the steam passes right through the Ramassery ones. The top is also covered with another earthen pot, trapping the steam to ensure it cooks from the top as well, making these idlis extremely soft.
“The idlis are then demoulded using a plachi leaf, which gives a very subtle aroma to the dish. The fragrance is not strong like that of a banana leaf but very subtle,” says Mathew. These are then served with a unique podi, which makes use of rice—the local variety from Palakkad—and a blend of spices. People pair this with sambhar or a spicy chicken curry. “At our restaurant, we make the curry only with local chicken. Guests have the option of eating the idli as part of a set menu or as a one-pot meal,” he adds.