I adore Indian food of all regions and descriptions, but South Indian is probably my favorite regional Indian cuisine. Coconut milk, curry leaves, mustard seeds, bright red chiles, and rice? Bring it on. Wild fermentation has a long history in India and there are many traditional dishes made with what we would call “sourdough”, batters dependent on wild yeasts for their unique tang. One of these traditional dishes is idli, a steamed “bread” made from a mixture of ground and fermented rice and lentils. I have eaten idli many times in restaurants and purchased them ready-made from Indian grocery stores, but I had never made them at home because they require a special piece of equipment- an idli steamer. Even eating idli in restaurants is a rare treat. There are no Indian restaurants serving South Indian food in my town so I have to seek them out in Indian restaurants in larger cities like Woodlands in Orlando.
A month or so ago I found myself wandering around a ritual and kitchen supply store in Atlanta, where lo and behold, they were selling small inexpensive idli steamers. I purchased one immediately, giddy with the idea of finally attempting one of my favorite dishes at home.
Last weekend the stars finally lined up correctly to try making idli. I read just about every idli-making recipe on the internet, which are mostly written by young expat women trying to recreate the fluffy and light idli their mom or grandma made when they were growing up. My mom doesn’t even know what idli are, so I felt rather freed from the ideal “perfect-mom-idli” and ready to experiment. The nice part of experiments like these is that rice and lentils are cheap. If it fails, I’m out about a dollar. No biggie.
The fermentation gives a great boost to the digestibility of the rice and lentils. If you can’t get urad dal or basmati rice, try this with other small lentils or beans. It may take some experimenting, but the technique will not change.
1/2 c split urad dal, skinless
2 c basmati rice
1 tbl whole fenugreek seeds
1-2 tsp salt
On the morning of the first day, pour the dry dal and rice into two separate bowls. Add the fenugreek seeds to the lentils. Cover each with 2″ of water, filtered or de-chlorinated if possible. Set out, uncovered, for 12 hours in a warm place.
That evening you make the batter. Drain the lentils and rice separately, keeping the water. Scrape the lentils and fenugreek seeds into a blender and grind on low, adding just enough of the soaking liquid to make a paste. When it’s completely smooth, scrape into a large glass bowl. Discard the remaining lentil soaking water. Then grind the rice, adding just enough of the rice soaking water to make a medium-thick batter like pancake batter. The batter must be as smooth as possible. This took five full minutes of grinding in my home blender, stopping occasionally to let the motor cool. Then add the rice batter to the lentil batter and stir thoroughly. The consistency should be white, light, and should drop off a spoon freely, not stick to the spoon or run off. Add one teaspoon of salt to the batter and beat the batter thoroughly with a sturdy whisk or wooden spoon to get some air in the batter. Then cover lightly with a piece of cheesecloth or a floursack towel and set aside in a warm, sheltered place, like bread dough. Let rise overnight.
Check the batter in the morning. Are there tiny bubbles? Are there lots of bubbles? If the batter is too thick or not rising, add a small amount of water until the batter “loosens up” and beat it again. Cover again and let it sit for another 8-12 hours. You want the batter to be very bubbly and smell good and sour, like a sourdough starter. If the batter reaches this state before you can cook the idli, put the batter in the fridge. Take it out and let it get warm and “alive” again before you cook it.
Take out your idli steamer*. Oil each depression. Put a couple of inches of water in a pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring the water up to a boil. Lightly spoon about 2 tbl of batter into each depression until each cup is full. Carefully lower the steamer into the pot, cover it, and steam on medium heat for 10 minutes. The idli are done when they are firm to the touch in the center. Carefully “pop” them out of the steamer, and then oil each depression again and repeat the process until the batter is gone. If they are not light & fluffy, a common “cheat” is to add a 1/2 tsp of baking powder to the batter right before cooking to give it a little extra lift. My first batch needed extra salt and baking powder. Next time I will ferment the batter longer.
Serve idlis hot with the chutney of your choice, though traditional and my favorite is coconut chutney. Tomorrow I’ll share the recipe for the spiced okra and coconut chutney I served with these idli!