The temperature has suddenly dropped a few degrees and a chill has set in. The yoga class has whipped up a vigorous appetite. And I find myself reaching out for a bowl of steaming hot idly, dunked in delicious sambhar and topped with ghee...Ah, sheer bliss!
Idly was a rather popular item in mom’s household. It would be made once a month, when we were younger, and then almost fortnightly as we started school and college. At first, it would be made for dinner (yes, not breakfast), but gradually made itself to breakfast food. These days it’s made on both occasions. For you see, mom dad would invariably never have breakfast, so they would miss out on the hot idlys. So some batter would always be reserved for such dinners. Idly would be always accompanied by sambhar and coconut chutney for dinner times, but only with chutney for breakfasts. The breakfast chutney would take the form of coconut or peanut, complete with urad dal and kadi patta tadka; or pud-chutney or chutney-pudi (made from roasted dals, tamarind and jaggery, a sweet-sour thingie) powder – mixed with dahi or oil just before serving.
Idly was so commonplace in our Marathi household, that it took me a real while to understand that rest of the folks call it a special meal or delicacy, eaten only at restaurants or on special occasions. I recently had called a cousin (in law) to wish her on her birthday, and routinely inquired what was the special dish of the day. Idly, came the reply, and I waited thinking she would add to it. But that was all. Now if someone made me idly on my birthday (grr!!)….but my mom had better sense. (She would whip up a surprise jalebi, or some such delicacy on birthdays).
Needless to say, mom’s idlys were a super hit in the family and friend circle. They would be pillowy soft, spongy, made from well fermented batter, and accompanied by the best fresh coconut chutney. Mom had always made idlys from idly rawa, instead of rice, and she would always add some methi seeds while grinding the batter. Bombay weather ensured the batter would rise (it was known to overflow the vessels in which it was kept fermenting), and you had melt-in-the-mouth idlys. And the trick with the coconut chutney was adding dalia (roasted chana dal) to ensure there is a smooth consistency to the chutney. Something which fellow Maharashtrians would always miss out, and then wonder what made our chutneys special. And they would invariably add garlic to the chutney, which made me politely refuse any idly offered in any Marathi home.
In the course of learning to cook, I as always started from ready made (err .. actually mom made) batter and then progressed to grinding the soaked dals and washed idly rawa. Since idly was a fortnightly affair, I had enough practice till the ratios were firmly entrenched in my mind. One cup urad dal to two-three cups of idly rawa and a spoonful of methi seeds. It has never gone wrong. Of course, after I lived abroad, I started to experiment a bit on this tried and tested recipe. I read somewhere that poha was a secret to softer and whiter idlys. So that found a way into the batter. Grinding the batter to a smooth consistency (with as little water) was another key, as was soaking the idly rawa for some time. With all these changes, our Taipei kitchen has whipped out many idly batches. I have known to make it with sticky rice when there was no idly rawa available at the only Indian store. It has been well received in all Indian get-togethers (the kids loved it!), as well as all Taiwanese parties. Why, on my first visit to Taipei, I sold idly as steamed rice cake to a bunch of university students, and earned my first income in the country (a la Kangana Ranaut in Queen). The Scientist has remarked time and again (for he comes from a Marathi household not known to consume such amounts of idly-dosa) that he didn’t know it was this easy.
Of course this was the only item safe to be eaten when we were travelling or had to eat in unknown restaurants. With almost no oil (unlike the dosa), it was deemed safe at any place, any time, by anyone. Especially us children. With protein from urad dal, carbohydrates from idly rawa/rice and teeming with healthy probiotic bacteria, this is one whole food. And it’s versatility is amazing – have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or an in-between snack. I have not known one kid who doesn’t love it, and it makes a great tiffin item for school children’s dabbas. Leftover idly? Just make idly fry (recipe below), for breakfast the next day like you would make pho-chi-po, or pho-cha-bha (phodnichi poli or bhaat 😉)
There have been some pretty interesting memories associated with this food. The Scientist and I had visited Chennai for some visa matters. I had heard of the famous Murugan idly, and was not leaving the city before trying out this one. We wandered into the shop at lunch time, and stuffed ourselves to T. This was the first time I ate idly served on banana leaves. With the sambhar running away and threatening to spill over the edges, you had to be quick to catch it, idly being your only weapon or sponge (Eating on banana leaves requires some training, and we had plenty growing up, but it still required some effort to polish idly-chutney-sambhar in this manner).
And I can gone on about the endless idlys (and dosas and uttapams, served with unlimited sambhar chutney) I (and my fellow Ruia-ites) have eaten at Mani’s – the best (and cheapest) Udupi joint tucked away in Hindu colony at Dadar, right next to Ruia college. Or how my music teacher always packed this for my dinner when I was returning to Hyderabad, after weekend lessons in Mumbai, with the trademark gunpowder chutney.
Our Tirupati pilgrimages and idly have a strong connection. We ate the best button idly with tomato rasam (yes not sambhar), topped with white butter in one of the restaurants at Tirupati. This was so good, that we ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole of our stay there that year. Unfortunately when we returned the next year, we searched high and low for this item on the menu and found that it had been struck off.
One winter evening in Tirupati, of another year, we had been waiting for a few hours to have a glimpse of the Lord of Seven Hills. While bhakti and devotion is all very fine, by the time we were out of the temple gates, it was close to midnight, and our stomachs were growling with hunger. We wondered if we would have to go to bed hungry. For everything had shut down. But He seemed to have some other plans. So what if it’s “adhi vithoba, mag potoba” this time around, He seemed to say. After walking some distance, we saw a lone vendor, busy dishing out steaming idlys in the middle of the night. Can you meet God as nay-sayers are wont to ask? Well, we met Him that night, for He came and fed us idlys.
Recipe for idly fry:
Ingredients : Leftover idly (from the previous night) – crumbled to resemble rawa or breadcrumbs, oil, mustard, jeera, hing, turmeric, green chillies, finely chopped or red chilly powder, one small onion finely chopped, roasted peanuts (as many as you like), curry leaves, salt to taste.
Make phodni by heating oil and adding mustard, jeera, hing and turmeric. Wait for it to crackle, and add green chillies (or red chilly powder), roasted peanuts, and onion. After frying for a few minutes, till the onion is cooked, add crumbled idly, salt to taste. Cover with a lid and let it steam for a few minutes. Garnish with coriander and serve hot.