Making That Breakfast Staple, The Idli

Idly sambar or Idli with Sambhar and green, red chutney. Popular South indian breakfast
Idly sambar or Idli with Sambhar and green, red chutney. Popular South indian breakfast. Image by indianfoodimages, c/o

Idli are simple, glorious examples of prudent cooking and there are many reasons to try them or even make them a feature of your cooking.

When you have any breakfast foods in southern India or northern Sri Lanka for that matter, then the idli comes into its own as well as good old dosas. Idli is a traditional savoury rice cake with a soft marshmallow or pillow like appearance. Most Indian restaurants in the UK will now serve idli as a matter of course and in fact it is available any time of the day – lunch and supper.

The earliest recorded writing on them was made in Kannada writings of 920 AD. Modern day idlis are 2 or 3 inches wide and quite fluffy puffed up creations. They are often accompanied with a bowl of chutney or a hot sambar.

The Idli And The Use Of Black Lentil

Idlis are an interesting fermented food too. You prepare them by steaming a batter composed of fermented black lentils (Vigna mungo) with the husks removed and rice. Indeed, a typical recipe will use 2 or 3 cups of rice, a cup of dehusked or skinless black lentil (black gram or urad daal). Some salt is needed for tasting only and 2 tablespoons of sunflower, canola, vegetable or other frying oil as you would for any batter frying. There’s real simplicity for you !

The key stage incidentally is actually the fermentation of the black lentils. If you cannot ferment black lentils however, look for split black gram dal which is available in Indian supermarkets and add a half to 1 cup to the recipe. The rice and lentils are always washed separately and then soaked overnight. 

Preparation Of Idli

We mentioned earlier about preparing a batter which is fermented overnight. When you need idlis for next day’s breakfast or indeed any other time, it is best to begin this part of the preparation right away. The parboiled rice and any rice grains are soaked in 4 cups of water along with the pre-soaked split black gram dal. Add a small cup of fenugreek seeds which have been pre-soaked too for two or three hours in a deep bowl. 

After 6 hours, the mixture is ground into a fine paste by adding some water in stages. Use a blender. Otherwise grind each component separately and bring together. This becomes the batter !

Transfer the batter to a bowl, add salt to taste and then whip the batter by hand to aerate it. 

Set aside overnight for fermentation. If you have a fridge, use it to keep the mixture cool otherwise cover with a clean cloth. 

Come the morning, the idlis are best steamed in a pressure cooker the following morning.

If you have an idli tray, use that, otherwise a small cake mould will do. Grease whatever moulds you have with the frying oil or butter.

Pour some batter into each mold to about three-quarters full. The first trials will be a bit hit and miss depending on how wide and deep the moulds are but persevere if you have not used this equipment before. Given that not everyone has a pressure cooker it’s possible to cook the idli in the following manner.

Boil water in a large pot or tray with a covering lid. Place the idli tray into this pot and steam them for 20 minutes. When using a pressure cooker, place the moulds into the water. Ensure the pot or cooker is partly filled to avoid the liquid part spoiling the batter. Steam these idlis for 15 to 20 minutes.

Check the idlis by poking each one with a toothpick. When it comes away clean as you would see for a cake, then it is ready.

Serve piping hot. Serve with your favourite chutney or sambar.

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