The idli also romanized "idly" or "iddly" and plural "idlis", is a savory cake popular throughout South India. The cakes are usually two to three inches in diameter and are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice. The fermentation process breaks down the starches so that they are more readily metabolized by the body.
Most often eaten at breakfast or as a snack, idlis are usually served in pairs with chutney, sambar, or other accompaniments. Mixtures of crushed dry spices such as milagai podi are the preferred condiment for idlis eaten on the go.
Although the precise history of the modern idli is unknown, it is a very old food in southern Indian cuisine. One mention of it in writings occurs in the Kannada writing of Shivakotiacharya in 920 AD, and it seems to have started as a dish made only of fermented black lentil. Chavundaraya II, the author of the earliest available Kannada encyclopaedia, Lokopakara (c. 1025), describes the preparation of Idli by soaking Urad dal (black gram) in butter milk, ground to a fine paste and mixed with the clear water of curd, and spices. The Kannada king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, the Manasollasa, written in Sanskrit ca. 1130 A.D. There is no known record of rice being added until some time in the 17th century. It may have been found that the rice helped speed the fermentation process. Although the ingredients used in preparing idli have changed, the preparation process and the name have still remained the same..
To make idli, two parts uncooked rice to one part split black lentil (Urad dal) are soaked. The lentils and rice are then ground to a paste in a heavy stone grinding vessel (aatu kal). This paste is allowed to ferment overnight, until it expands to about 2Â½ times its original volume. In the morning, the idli batter is put into the ghee-greased molds of an idli tray or "tree" for steaming. These molds are perforated to allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done (about 10-25 minutes, depending on size). The idli is somewhat similar to the dosa, a fried preparation of the same batter.
In the olden days, when the idli mold cooking plates were not popular or widely available, the thick idli batter was poured on a cloth tightly tied on the mouth of a concave deep Cooking pan or tava half filled with water. A heavy lid was placed on the pan and the pot kept on the boil until the batter was cooked into idli. This was often a large idli depending on the circumference of the pan. It was then cut into bite-size pieces and eaten.
Contemporary Idlis and variations
Southern Indians have brought the popular idli wherever they have settled throughout the world. Cooks have had to solve problems of hard-to-get ingredients, and climates that do not encourage overnight fermentation.
Newer "quick" recipes for the idli can be rice- or wheat-based (rava idli). Parboiled rice can reduce the soaking time considerably. Store-bought ground rice is available, or Cream of Rice may be used. Similarly, semolina or Cream of Wheat may be used for rava idli. Yoghurt may be added to provide the sour flavor for unfermented batters. Prepackaged mixes allow for almost instant idlis, for the truly desperate. However, the additional health benefits of fermentation process will be lacking. Idli Burger is another variation that can be made easily.
Besides the microwave steamer, electric idli steamers are available, with automatic steam release and shut-off for perfect cooking. Both types are non-stick, so a fat-free idli is possible. Table-mounted electric Wet grinders may take the place of floor-bound attu kal. With these appliances, even the classic idlis can be made more easily.
The plain rice/black lentil idli continues to be the popular version, but it may also incorporate a variety of extra ingredients, savory or sweet. Mustard seeds, fresh chile peppers, black pepper, cumin, coriander seed and its fresh leaf form (cilantro), fenugreek seeds, curry leaves , fresh ginger root, sesame seeds, nuts, garlic, scallions, coconut, and the unrefined sugar jaggery are all possibilities. Filled idlis contain small amounts of chutneys, sambars, or sauces placed inside before steaming. Idlis are sometimes steamed in a wrapping of leaves such as banana leaves or jackfruit leaves.
A variety of idlis are experimented these days, namely, standard idli, mini idlis soaked in sambar, rava idli, Kancheepuram idli, stuffed idli with a filling of potato, beans, carrot and masala, ragi idli, pudi idli with the sprinkling of chutney pudi that covers the bite-sized pieces of idlis, malli idli shallow-fried with coriander and curry leaves, and curd idli dipped in masala curds.
Ramasseri, an offbeat village in Palakkad is known all over Kerala for the idlies it make - the delicious Ramasseri Idli. Spongy and soft Ramasseri Idli is slightly different in shape from the conventional idlies. It is a little flat and round. Ramasseri Idli is eaten with Podi mixed in coconut oil. The beginning was from a Muthaliyar family living near Mannath Bhagavathi Temple in Ramasseri near Elappullly.The recipe of Ramasseri idli dates back to about one century,which again is a trade secret. The Muthaliyar family was migrated to Palakkad from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. The new generation in the profession says that the secret of the recipe and taste were handed down to them from grand old women of the community. Now the idli business is confined to four families in Ramasseri. Selection of rice is very important in making Ramasseri idli. Usually the verities used are Kazhama, Thavalakannan, Ponni etc. The taste starts from the boiling of paddy itself. Drying and dehusking are also important. It is done in a particular way. The combination of rice and black gram is also equally important. For 10 kg of rice, one kg of black gram is used. Idli is made only after four hours of fermentation. Boiling of the idli is done on a cloth covered on the mud pot using firewood. This provides special taste to the preparation.
Leftover Idli can be torn into crumbs and used for preparing dishes such as Idli fry and Idli Upma.
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