All about Idli

All about Idli
Course: Snack
Cuisine: Indian
Author: Chandri Bhat
Recipe Notes
Idli /Idly is one of the most prominent and popular dishes of South India. In recent years it has gained popularity in other parts of India as well as many overseas countries. Idli may be defined as light steamed cakes made from the fermented batter of rice and black lentils (urad). There is reference to this snack from very ancient times in Kannada language works where it is called “Iddalige” and later “Iddarika”. There are many theories and controversies regarding the origin and the evolvement of this ancient dish into its contemporary Avatar (those interested may please Google “origin of Idli” for more information).
I think it is still evolving like many other traditional dishes. I have observed it changing slowly and steadily from my childhood to present day. Growing up in Mangalore, (1939-1961) then a small town in the south west coast of India, I remember, in my community Idlis were mostly prepared using raw rice and Urad dal (split black gram without husk). Some local communities used parboiled rice. We used 1 part of urad dal to 2 parts of rice. The idlies were steamed in a special copper steamer in small “Katories” or in cylinders made of palm leaf (moode) or cups made by stitching together four jackfruit leaves (kotte). The last two varieties are still popular in this region and are considered signature dishes of Udupi/Mangalore cuisine.
We switched over to idli plates about 30 years back, the same time as we started using whole urad and parboiled rice (Idli rice) and changed the proportion to 1 part of urad to 3 parts of rice. Now there are many variations in the rice and urad proportion and additions like cooked rice or beaten rice (Poha). These variations are a result of the varieties of rice available in each region, the climatic conditions, the changing methods of farming and lifestyle changes. However, the fact that Idli has enjoyed popularity and prominence since ancient times is indisputable.
Though Idlies are prepared regularly in almost all South Indian homes, there are still many myths about what makes Idlies soft and there are many home cooks who are not satisfied with the idlies they make.

What is the right proportion of Urad and Rice?

There are several recipes with varying proportions and other additions besides the rice and urad. Each of them yields a different texture, taste and flavour. The proportion also depends on the quality of the urad and rice. Generally speaking, the ratio of urad to rice is 1:3. This is the one which is used in most recipes.

What is the difference between using raw rice and parboiled rice in idlies?

Parboiled rice aids fermentation. So the batter ferments in lesser time and yields larger volume. Raw rice imparts more “sweetness” to idlies. Some recipes use a combination of both types of rice.

Why do some recipes use Beaten/ flattened rice (poha) or cooked rice in Idlies?

Poha and cooked rice are precooked starch which aid fermentation. Addition of these are recommended if the weather is cold or if the batter is to be fermented in shorter time. However, if too much of poha or cooked rice is used, the idlies get a sticky texture.

Why is fenugreek added in idlies?

Fenugreek imparts a pleasant flavour to Idlies and also because it is credited with many health benefits including aiding digestion.

Many cooks say that if urad is soaked for long time, it loses its “fluffiness” and renders the idlies harder. So they soak rice for 4-6 hours but the urad only for an hour. Is this a necessary precaution?

No. It is not the time of soaking that matters. These cooks probably soak the urad before washing, throw away the soaking water and wash it before grinding. In this case there is a possibility that some of the “rising” property of urad is lost. If it is washed before soaking and soaked with just enough water to come up to about 3-4 cm of its level, and all the soaking liquid is used for grinding the batter, the soaking time does not matter.

What is the cause for batter not fermenting well and not rising in volume?

1. If the weather is cold, it takes more time for the batter to ferment. So plan the grinding accordingly.
2. Grind the urad and rice separately.
3. The rice and urad by themselves, take different time for fermenting. Rice takes longer than urad. So, after grinding them separately, combine both, add the salt and mix the batter thoroughly. This step is very important to get uniform fermentation of the batter.

Some cooks line the idli plates with a thin wet cloth before pouring the batter in it. They claim that idlies turn out lighter this way. Is this right?

The cloth only helps to turn out the idlies immediately after steaming, by just flipping the cloth out. So the steaming hot idlies look lighter than the ones which are eased out from the plates a couple of minutes after steaming.

what is the best equipment for grinding the batter for idlies?

Few decades ago, the batter was ground manually in a grinding stone till wet grinders were introduced in the market. Over the years these grinders have improved in functioning and safety. I recommend Panasonic Ultra wet grinder for efficient and safe grinding of batters.

Can the idli batter be ground in a mixer grinder?

In the absence of a wet grinder, it is possible to get good results with a mixer grinder. (I use the mill jar of Panasonic mixer grinder). Do not over load the grinding jar. You get better results by grinding optimum quantities at a time. It takes only a couple of minutes for each batch. Add 3-4 ice cubes to the urad while grinding. This prevents it from getting hot and thus losing some of its rising property. Use the water in which the urad was soaked to grind it. Avoid prolonged grinding of urad. Grind just till it is smooth and few bubbles appear in the batter.
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