Hot breakfast! Two words that are enough to light up my face! Growing up I've watched my mother stir up pots of warm goodness in the morning, food that kept us satiated for long and energized throughout the day. Of all those breakfasts, idlis were always a thing of utter joy, no matter how often they were repeated in a month.
I remember mother's kitchen. A mildly tart smelling batter of rice and urad dal (matpe beans) and worked upon overnight by good bacteria yielding ample fermentation would be ready on the countertop. A tall pressure cooker would be ready atop the gas stove with water rumbling in it. Maa would fill ladles of the batter in moulds — stacked upon each other on a stand — place the stand in the cooker, close its lid and take the whistle off it. In minutes freshly steamed idlis would dole out to plates and served with many spoons of coconut chutney and guguni (dried peas curry). Yum! I'm almost salivating at the thought of it!
While sambar, chutney and podi are typical accompaniments of idli in south India, guguni is more common in Odisha. Although, you'll find loads of tiffin style sambar served with idli in southern Odisha, guguni still remains a favourite.
Coming back to idli itself — a steamed fluffy fermented rice and lentil cake which is extremely healthy and light on the stomach while being satiating for the palate when dipped in hot sambar or curries and topped with wet chutneys or dry podis with a helping of ghee or gingelly (sesame) oil.
Some bits of history
Although idli is quite mainstream across India and not just the southern half of the country, it's origin in south India are hazy. There are multiple theories around the origin of idli. But here's what seems logical to me and has reliable validations:
The Tamil Sangam literature has no mentions of idli. The earliest text to mention it is Sivakotyacharya's Vaddaradhane written in Kannada in 920 AD. Even there, the word is 'iddalige', and some historians believe the word 'idli' may have been derived from the 'iddalige.'
What's important to note is that the Kannada iddalige was made of soaked urad dal, ground into a paste and mixed with yogurt and spices as Kalpana Sunder describes in the Whetstone article. They further write, "‘Iddarika,’ or fine urad dal balls fried in ghee, also appear in the 12th-century Sanskrit text Manasollasa, which is considered India’s oldest existing cookbook." In either case, there's no steaming and there's no use of rice, which is how idli is made — using steam to cook the fermented rice and urad dal batter.
According to food historian K T Achaya, idlis may have come from Indonesia — a country with a longstanding tradition of steamed and fermented food. He quotes the famous Chinese traveler Xuan Zang in his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, mentioning the absence of steaming vessels in India in the 7th century. Indonesia's kedli, a fluffy steamed cake could have been the precursor to the Indian idli.
Considering the the trade routes between South East Asia and ancient India and the history of Hindu kings of the Shailendra, Isyana and Sanjaya dynasties ruling Indonesia, it's plausible that the cooks employed in the royal kitchens of Hindu kings in Indonesia brought the technique of fermentation and steaming to India.
Food historian Kurush Dalal mentions in an Indian Express article, “The South has not been cultivating rice for more than 3000 years. So idli cannot de facto be more than 3000 years old. And when we actually started fermenting rice batter and steaming it the next day is another factor.”
Thus it seems more likely that the present day technique to make idlis may have come from Indonesia. Chef Ranveer Brar summarizes it beautifully in an Instagram post, "While there are different claims to its origin & regionality, prominent food historian KT Achaya notes that our Food encyclopedias - Vaddaradhane by Sri Shivakoti Acharya & later the Manasollasa by King Someshvara III mention Iddalige & Iddarika respectively. However both variants used only Black gram or Urad dal, not the rice grits that form the better half (not by measure of course) of the batter ingredients. As a result, the original idli was greyish in colour and was cooked on a griddle, not steamed. The idli we know today is attributed more to an Indonesian influence, specifically inter-marriages between Southern Indian kings & Indonesian royal families who followed the same religion and extensively traded with them. This cultural melange brought in the idea of steam-cooking idlis into the mainstream, refining the batter along the way."
There's yet another theory for the origin of idli which links to the Gujarati 'idada' or 'idra.' Made of rice and urad dal, idada or idra is a steamed white dhokla, and is believed to have come to south India with community of silk weavers from Saurashtra in Western India during the 10th century AD.
Irrespective of the origins, it's safe to claim that the process of making idlis was perfected in India, more specifically in the south and became one of the most popular and loved meals along with sambar and chutney across India.
There isn't one kind of idli
The humble idli is quite versatile with many versions that have evolved over time owing to needs and tastes. Rava idlis are made of semolina. Then there's the flat saucer-shaped thatte idli (‘thatte’ is a circular platter) from Bidadi and Tumkur in Karnataka. There's kadubu’ idli or idli batter steamed in stitched jackfruit leaves along Karnataka's west coast.
Other varieties include sanna, whose batter is fermented with toddy (a mildly alcoholic fermented beverage made of fresh palm sap), lending it a subtle sweetness. The sanna is usually eaten with pork sorpotel (a spicy, vinegar-doused dish of Portuguese origin) or chicken curry.
The Mudaliar community of weavers, who migrated from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu to Ramassery, a village in the Palakkad district of Kerala, make some of the softest textured idlis. The Kanchipuram idli, spiced with cumin, pepper, ginger powder and asafoetida, from Tamil Nadu is traditionally a temple food offering and tastes absolutely divine!
And, there are tons of modern spins to the old classic idli with gluten free alternatives like quinoa and oats replacing the rice and dal.
The key to making the best idlis
When I was in India I had easy access to ready homemade batters from external sources, including ID Fresh Food. I continued to have access to such good batters in Toronto as well where the Indian diaspora has ensured availability of anything you may need to make Indian food. the challenge was when I moved to Whitehorse, a much smaller and isolated city in the cold Canadian north. With readymade idli and dosa batter not in my reach, I had to make batter at home — the key to making the softest idlis!
For me, there was no shortcut to learning this. There was of course steady guidance of my mother but what's notable is that the environmental conditions, the kind of rice, the grinding of the grains and lentils, and the extent of fermentation together decide the fate of the final idlis. Since I started making idli batter only when I was away from her, our circumstances and quality of ingredients were quite different, and my results were not identical to hers always. Whitehorse is way colder than the coastal hot Bhubaneswar where my parents live in India, which thoroughly affected how my batter turned out!
Here's what I have learned over 2 years and felt useful to be summarized for anyone who loves idlis but struggles to make the batter:
There are many ratios in which you may take rice and urad dal to make idlis. The golden ratio is 4:1 for rice:urad dal. This implies in whichever container/cup you measure rice, you should measure 4 parts of rice and use the same cup to measure 1 part of urad dal. You can definitely try 3:1 and 2:1 ratio for rice:urad dal and experiment! I did too when I started!
The kind of rice and dal you use will affect how your idlis turn out. As a rule of thumb, parboiled rice is best! You can also use red rice which has a lot of fiber and adds an extremely good texture to idlis. I prefer the red matta rice from Kerala for this. You can use whole white (hurled) urad dal or split white urad dal. You can also used whole/split black (unhurled) urad dal which packs a lot of fiber and texture to idlis too.
Next, you need to soak the rice and dal separately for at least 6-8 hours or overnight. Don't be stingy in how much water you use for soaking! Add as much water as possible in a wide mouthed vessel and ensure the rice and dal are submerged well.
Add a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds to the dal while soaking as it helps in fermentation, lends a beautiful aroma and makes softer idlis. You can also soak a handful of beaten rice (poha) and add it to the mix when grinding — this also helps in making soft idlis.
Drain the water from the grain and lentil and use a good quality grinder to grind the them separately.
Grind the rice coarse and the urad dal smooth. Now, to ensure this, add water sparingly as you grind. Traditionally a wet grinder is used to grind the grains and lentils in India. I haven't invested in one here. I use my Ninja and it works pretty well!
So, when you grind rice, add about 1/4 or less cup of water and grind. If it's getting stuck, add water incrementally but don't use a setting on the grinder which will make too-fine a paste of the rice. If you soaked beaten rice, now is the time to add it to the rice and grind together.
For the dal, grind it to a smooth consistency till it's fluffy and you can blow it off your fingers! Even if you can't grind it that smooth, ensure it's smooth enough with no visible dal particles. Again, the idea is to add water incrementally. Fenugreek seeds will also get grinded with the dal.
Now, add both the mixtures in a vessel large enough and mix using your clean hands. Yes, your hands. Not a spatula but your hands which have good bacteria and aid in fermentation.
Using circular motions of your hands, beat the mixture well to aerate them. Aeration is crucial to the texture of idlis that you'll make later! Love those tiny perforated holes in an idli? That's from aerating the batter!
Once you have a somewhat fluffy batter, cover and keep it in a warm place on the kitchen counter and leave it for 6-8 hours to let it ferment. This time will vary depending on where you live.
If you live in a cold place like Whitehorse or even London, leaving the batter to ferment on its own will take forever! Use an instant pot to ferment the batter if you have one. Set the pot to yogurt mode and allow about 10-12 hours. It may sometimes take 14 hours also.
Another handy trick which I now use is to keep the batter in a lit oven. Turn the light on in your oven but do not turn the oven on! Now, keep the batter in it overnight. By morning, you'll have a lovely well fermented batter. The concentrated heat from the oven light helps the batter ferment faster.
After the batter has fermented, you'll notice it has risen and formed air pockets inside. You'll also notice a faint sour smell. Your batter is ready!
Once fermented, add ladles of the batter in idli moulds that are greased and stacked inside a steamer, and steam for about 10-12 minutes. Traditionally, idli plates are covered with wet muslin cloth or leaves to make it easier to remove the idlis once cooked. I don't have a steamer, so I use my instant pot in steam mode with the vent pushed down so the steam can escape as the idlis cook. You can also use a pressure cooker without putting on its whistle!
When adding the batter to the moulds, ensure that you don't fill the moulds too much. You want to give the idlis enough space to rise and take shape. Batter at room temperature usually results in softer idlis than the one straight out of the fridge. I make my batter in a fairly large quantity to last through a week (and many times use the same batter for dosa too) which I store in the refrigerator. However when using old batter that has lasted in the fridge, I first keep the required amount in a bowl on the counter and let it come to room temperature before steaming.
There isn't much to the recipe once you have understood the process. So, here's a short summary.
To soak and grind:
4 parts of rice preferably parboiled - white, red or any other variety
1 part of whole/split urad dal (mapte beans) - unhurled black or hurled white
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1/4 part beaten rice (optional)
A pinch of salt
To make idlis:
Rice and urad dal fermented batter made from the ingredients above
Oil/Ghee to grease the idli moulds
Wash the rice well and soak in sufficient water. Wash the urad dal well and soak along with the fenugreek seeds. If using beaten/flattened rice, soak that as well. Let everything remain soaked for about 6-8 hours.
Drain the water and keep the wet rice and urad dal separately aside. In a mixer, add small amounts of water intermittently to make a coarse paste of rice. If using beaten rice, add it to the rice while grinding. Add the coarse rice paste into a non-plastic vessel which is tall enough to hold the batter which will rise after fermentation.
In the same mixer, add small amounts of water intermittently to make a smooth fluffy paste of urad dal along with fenugreek seeds. Add the urad dal paste to the rice paste in the vessel.
Using clean hands, mix the two pastes to aerate the batter. You may use a spatula or whisk for this but hands are best! Mix for at least 5-7 minutes. Note: Some people like to add salt at this stage. I usually add salt after the batter has fermented. You can also add a small pinch at this stage and add the rest after the fermentation. Salt can sometimes hinder the process of fermentation, so I'm cautious in adding it.
Leave the batter in a warm dry place to ferment for 8-10 hours or overnight. This time will vary depending on where you live. In warm places, this can happen in 6 hours as well and in cold place, this may take as long as 14 hours. Check out the Fermenting section under process for tips and tricks to help faster fermentation in cold places.
After the batter has fermented, you'll notice it has risen and formed air pockets inside. You'll also notice a faint sour smell. Your batter is ready! If you find the batter too thick, add a ladle or two of water and mix but don't make the batter too runny.
To make idlis, add water to a steamer or instant pot or pressure cooker and heat the water. Meanwhile, grease moulds with oil or ghee and then pour ladles of batter into the moulds. For a steamer, the moulds are made in a plate. For a pressure cooker or tall pot, the moulds are usually stacked on a stand. Once your moulds are ready, place them in the steamer/instant pot/pressure cooker and steam for 10-12 minutes. Note: For steamer/pressure cooker on a gas/electric stove top, steam at high heat. For an instant pot, first use sauté mode to heat water. Place the idli stand in it and then switch to steam mode with the vent valve pushed down to allow the steam to escape. Set a manual timer for 10-12 minutes and switch off once the timer goes off. Wait for all the steam to release naturally and then hold off a couple of seconds before opening the instant pot.
Use a butter knife to remove the idlis from the mould. Serve hot with sambar and/or chutney! Keep a hot cup of coffee ready to sip after you wipe off the plate/bowl! :)