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Friday, December 04, 2020

Serves all, with a side of chutney

There’s no doubt that the humble idli is one of India’s most consumed breakfast dish. But what accounts for its popularity?

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi | Updated: November 1, 2020 5:28:07 pm
Comfort food: Rava Idli at MTR

Idlis,/ plump and spongy lenses,/ magnify our appetites; / and, through the telescope of shared hope,/ bring the stars within our reach

In the long poetic sequence, ‘Breakfast at Kala Ghoda’, which forms the centrepiece of his Kala Ghoda Poems (2004), Arun Kolatkar made special mention of the ordinary idli. In the poet’s imagination, the idlis collected in the “jumbo aluminium box” of Our Lady of Idlis are transformed from something unremarkable to a “sacrament”, towards which the hungry and homeless people within a mile of this spot in south Mumbai gravitate. What is it that makes this humble food, available for as little as Rs 1 in some places, a source of such inspiration?

The people in the Kolatkar poem might be a figment of the poet’s imagination, but there are enough real-life examples of people for whom the idli is more than just-food. When PC Musthafa, CEO and co-founder of ID Fresh Food, that sells packaged batter, was growing up in Wayanad, Kerala, eating three full meals a day was a “luxury”. “But whenever my grandfather or father could afford it, they would buy some idlis. They were wholesome and filled our stomachs. Because of those memories, to this day, idlis are my favourite food,” he says.

Last month, when a tweet by British historian Edward Anderson, calling the idli “boring”, went viral, idli supporters came forward in droves, led by Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor. The good-humoured controversy made it clear that if a comprehensive survey was to be conducted about India’s most popular breakfast food, idli, along with dosa, would find a place near the top. The idli is available in almost every part of the country and features on menus in five-star hotels, tea stalls, canteens and udupi restaurants. No one disputes its south Indian provenance, but everyone agrees that its appeal goes beyond geographical boundaries. How did this happen?

The story of idli’s popularity begins in Udupi, a temple town in coastal Karnataka. In the late 19th century, large-scale migrations from the region began, with the lower-caste Holeya labourers leaving to work in the coffee plantations of Kodagu and Malenadu, writes economist and professor Chinmay Tumbe in India Moving: A History of Migration (2018, Penguin Random House). By the early 20th century, a wider range of castes, that included Brahmins trained in the kitchens of their native town’s famous Sri Krishna Temple, joined the exodus, to work as cooks or run their own eating establishments in Bengaluru, Chennai and Mysuru. After a great flood — the “maari bolla” of 1923 — devastated the Dakshina Kannada region, migration out of Udupi and the surrounding areas increased. Tumbhe writes, “Mass migration of male workers and professionals to large cities led to the rising demand for low-cost public eating spaces. Several prominent Udupi food outlets such as Dasaprakash in Mysore and Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan and Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR) in Bangalore were set up in the 1920s to cater to this demand.” Besides cheap lunches and dinners, these outlets also offered south Indian “tiffin” (breakfast or snack) specialities like dosas and idlis.

A Karnataka variation in Vivanta Bengaluru known as Oggaraneda Aritha Pundi Ramassery idli

It was these “Udupi hotels” which popularised idlis outside the region. Having first sprung up in major cities in the south, they got a footing in other parts of the country, especially in Mumbai, by the middle of the 20th century. “There was an enormous spread of people from south India, especially in western and northern India, and the Udupi hotels first catered to them. Then others also started going to eat at these places, and became familiar with the taste of ordinary south Indian food items like idli,” says Kurush Dalal, Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist.

According to Dalal, the armed forces also played an important role in familiarising the rest of the country with idlis. “There were lots of south Indians in the armed forces and so the mess also began to serve idlis and dosas for breakfast. You have to eat what is served in the mess, so many who hadn’t grown up eating these items became accustomed to them,” he says.

Another significant factor in popularising the idli, says Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef, Vivanta Bengaluru, was its ease of replication. “Think about the recipes that chef Sanjeev Kapoor explains on his TV show. He never picks anything too complicated for the average viewer to replicate in her or his kitchen because he knows that in order for the recipe to appeal to someone who is not familiar with the food, he would have to keep it simple,” says Thimmaiah. In the case of the idlis, this was initially a big hurdle. “For something to be ‘popular’, it would have to be made at home, and many people outside south India were unable to get the batter right,” he says. Natural fermentation, essential for idli to taste right, is always tricky. Most people were also confused about the ratio of rice to the black gram, which would vary, depending on which south Indian they consulted. This changed when ready-made batters began to be widely available in the market. “About 60-70 per cent of the work was already done. All they had to do was steam the batter. Their confidence increased and they were able to consume it regularly at home,” says Thimmaiah.

Musthafa estimates that today, in Mumbai alone, about 70,000 kg of the idli-dosa batter is consumed in a day. “According to an internal study that we did of the battered market, Chennai remains the mecca of idlis, while other cities in the south, like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, are major consumers. But outside the region, Mumbai is number one,” he says. One of the problems that his company had initially faced, when selling packaged batter was persuading people that it was perfectly safe to eat. “Indians believe that dry food is more hygienic. When you see something in a package, you think that it’s full of preservatives and isn’t healthy,” he says. That problem, he says, is now more or less a thing of the past, even though he does run into the occasional customer who asks him how much preservative is there in his company’s idli batter. “When I was in the US last year, I visited a few Indian stores. I was surprised that there are three to four brands of ready-to-use batter available in every one of them. In the UAE, which is one of our most important markets, there are 24 batter brands. Clearly, people have embraced it,” he says.

Most of the modern idli’s key features can be traced back to southeast Asia, wrote food historian KT Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion (1994). He suggested that what we now know as the idli was originally an unfermented cake known as iddarika, mentioned in the 12th-century treatise Manasollasa, and was made only of black gram (urad dal). The use of rice, fermentation of the batter and cooking by steaming were features that were imported from Indonesia. While there’s no way yet of ascertaining this, what’s clear is that before it spread out into the rest of the country, various iterations of the same food — made with a batter of rice and black gram, fermented and then steamed into individual handy “cakes” — were an indisputable part of the cuisines of south India.

“Idli is incredibly versatile. There are so many different ways of making it, that if you travel around South India, you’ll find that it changes from one district to the next,” says chef Regi Mathew, culinary director and co-owner, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (Chennai & Bengaluru) and KCK FoodPack. In some Namboodiri households in central Travancore, Kerala, for example, he found what is called the “poo” (flower) idli — airy and soft, made only with the lightest, froth-like layer found at the top of freshly-fermented batter. Other traditional variants include the kotte kadubu from Karnataka, which is steamed inside cups made of jackfruit leaves, and the large and flat Ramassery idli, made in the village of Ramassery near Palakkad, which, according to Mathew, has to be made with rice sourced from the region for it to taste right.

Idli’s versatility also means that it has been shaped by contemporary needs and tastes. For example, the popular rava idli, made of semolina, was created in the kitchens of MTR in Bengaluru during World War II, when rice was in short supply, says Hemamalini Maiya, who runs the 96-year-old family business with her brothers Arvind and Vikram. In recent years, idlis made of oats, quinoa and barley, made colourful by the addition of vegetables like carrots, beetroot and spinach, have been created to cater to the nutritionally-minded, while those with more whimsical tastes might prefer something like the chocolate or coconut water idli created by M Eniyavan, owner of Chennai’s Mallipoo Idli.

But most of us eat a rather more staid variety. Maiya says that the typical idli found in Kolkata, Chandigarh or Ahmedabad is most likely one of two distinct types: the Karnataka-style grainy idli, made with black gram and coarsely-ground rice or the softer Tamil Nadu-style one, made with a fine batter.

How does one eat idli? Occasionally, it is served with accompaniments like tomato or coriander chutney, molaga podi or just plain white butter. But, as with the first “pure vegetarian” Udupi hotels, which almost always had separate caste-based dining sections, the most widely-available combination remains idli-sambar-chutney.

Considering this the “authentic” combination, however, betrays a very limited understanding of how to enjoy the idli. “What is the idli by itself? It only has a mild flavour. What makes it irresistible is how its spongy texture can soak up the taste of anything that you serve it with,” Mathew says. There is a correct way of making idli, but there is no correct way of eating it. One could be confused about what kind of rice to use, whether or not to add fenugreek seeds, or even how to steam idlis long enough so that they’re soft but not sticky. But there should be absolutely no confusion about how to eat them. “(Eat them with) any kind of chutney you like, or maybe with stew. Many enjoy it with unusual accompaniments such as chicken, fish or prawn curry, and it’s delicious. Idli is meant to be a staple, so eat it as you please,” Mathew says.

Ramassery idli recipe

Serves two people

Cooking Time

Batter and fermentation: 7 hours

Cooking time: 15 minutes


4 cups each of raw rice and ponni rice

2 cups of split urad dal

1 tsp fenugreek, sea salt to taste

Soak the urad dal and the fenugreek together and the rice separately.

For a frothy batter, the rice has to be soaked longer than the urad dal. Grind the two separately and then mix.

Allow it to ferment for six hours. Add the salt.

Place a muslin cloth on the mouth of a narrow-necked earthen vessel and secure it tightly with a string. Make small holes in the cloth.

Fill the vessel with water and bring it to a boil. Now, place a wet muslin cloth over this, and pour the batter on it. Cover the batter with another earthen vessel. Steam for five minutes.

Gently demould the idli using a banana leaf, and peel the muslin cloth off the top before serving.

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