A new twist to my half-century relationship with ‘idli’
A family's comfort breakfast for nearly a half century, the idli takes on new form with millets and pulses
It was 1970, I was five years old, and as India struggled with bankruptcy, the era of maharajas and private banks had ended, and Indira Gandhi had swept aside the tired old men of her party and was establishing her hold on a poor, struggling nation. We lived far away from national turmoil in a cool stone house and compound, with 20 chickens, a rabbit and two dogs—one of whom was adept at raiding the slaughterhouse down the road—on 99 Broadway Road, Bangalore, then a gloriously wooded city of rain trees and gulmohars in the old state of Mysore. When our Fiat 1100 trundled down avenues shaded by masses of flowering trees, it was one of the few cars on the roads because everyone walked or cycled.
Since then, Bangalore, India and I have changed beyond recognition, but there is one thing in my life that has barely wavered: the breakfast routine of idli and dosa, steamed rice dumplings and rice pancakes if you insist on the ungainly English translation. Although this culinary routine was established early in life, there were, of course, intermissions in my half-century relationship with idli and dosa.
When we lived in Gulbarga, the quiet hot heart of the Deccan—in the days when Irish terrorists were setting off car bombs in England and unrest was sweeping India—paya (trotters) sometimes featured on the breakfast menu. When we lived in Delhi during the days of Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency, a lot of things were shoved down our throats—slogans like “India Is Indira And Indira Is India" and aloo parathas. When I lived in the American Midwest—during the first days of president Bill Clinton and the last of tennis player Arthur Ashe—sodium- and fat-laden sausages, ham, eggs and white bread became the routine.
Today, at age 51, the formerly fuzzy concept of mortality shines bright, like a beacon in the night. Health is now an important factor, and the breakfast variations introduced during life’s intermissions have mostly faded. Breakfast is back to a reasonably rigid idli-dosa routine, which has been established strongly since we returned to Bengaluru, struggling this time to find a neighbourhood where the old rain trees and gulmohars have survived.
The day begins with a two-egg motte dosa (steamed egg on dosa) that I share with my seven-year-old. We eat off the same plate, with chutney and the dry pulses and spices mixture that is popularly called gunpowder. Sometimes, we add sambhar. On Friday nights, my parents call my wife to confirm the Saturday routine: idlis with sambhar and chutney.
And so it goes. But as we reacquire expertise with dosas and ponder what is healthy and what can change, we fiddle with what we know to make it better. So, we have—over the last three years—changed from a white-rice batter to heavier, but healthier dosa batters made variously of brown rice, red rice, finger millet (ragi) and, our latest, proso millet (baragu in Kannada). Whatever their consistency, heavy or light, we make them all without oil and serve them with chutneys that have no coconut, although weekends are reserved for coconut chutney.
Last week, we invited ourselves over to the home of our friend Anaheeta Pinto, who made the mistake of mentioning that she was trying out a recipe of idli (and dosa) batter from a friend, Smita Sajnani. It was made from red rice, pulses and millets. Pinto quibbled about the consistency of the batter and how the idlis looked terrible, but when we tasted them—soaked in sambhar and lashed with chutney and gunpowder—they were light, airy and brown little discs full of character. There was another experimental idli as well (see photo), the batter for this was made from 1 cup urad dal, 2 cups raw red rice, 1 cup foxtail millet, 1 cup oats and 1 tsp fenugreek seeds.
In the 1970s, we knew the best idlis were to be had at the house of my father’s colleague. The secret, his wife said, was in the rice, which came from their “native place", somewhere near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. These were the lightest idlis I have ever eaten, gossamer light. If you had thrown them up in the air, they may have floated away. The red-rice-pulses-millet idli isn’t quite as light as Mrs Ramalingam’s miracles—and it isn’t like we could ever recreate her magic—but it is as good as it is likely to get half a lifetime after my idli-dosa habit began.
Idlis made of red rice, pulses and millet
1 cup split black gram (urad dal)
1/2cup horsegram (kulith)
2 cups raw red rice
1/2cup ragi (finger millet) + 1/2 cup jowar (sorghum)
1 cup red rice flakes (poha)
1 tsp fenugreek (methi seeds)
Wash and soak the pulses (dals) in one vessel, the millets and rice in another. Dip a finger in the water—it should be one digit above the pulses and millet-rice. This is a rough estimation. The fenugreek seeds can go into either vessel. Let them soak for about 6 hours. Begin by grinding pulses, then adding millets. Add more water if the mixture is too thick and the grinder is struggling. Place the batter in a large vessel, so that half is empty, and put in an oven or a warm place overnight. Cover the vessel to aid fermentation. The batter should rise by morning. Stir the batter and it will settle. Place in the fridge immediately or it will sour. If you are making idli right away, pour the batter in a muslin-lined idli stand and steam for 12-15 minutes. Serve with sambhar and chutney.
Add water to the batter if you want to make dosas.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11