Friday, June 27, 2008

5 star Idlis, July 2008

This recipe is for the Beginner and Intermediate Indian cook.

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The idli is a perfect food for everybody: from active adults and children to seniors on a light diet. A protein, because of the urad dal and rice combo, it has no fat...unless you drown it in ghee, of course. It is a very popular breakfast dish in South India and usually accompanied with chutney and sambar. Some serve it with palya/potatoes too, and others with kurma (a mix of vegetables cooked in a sauce).
Breakfast for dinner.
We eat idlis for dinner here in the States, as HD (Hubby Dearest) and I have bagels/toast for breakfast, with pancakes on Sunday. Lunch for him is fruits and nuts and for me it is whatever I can find in the fridge. This leaves me the mornings free for my morning walk and working on my laptop. Exercise is of paramount importance for a diabetic...and everybody else. I start making dinner around four and we eat it at five and then have a snack before bedtime.
Since the kids left home, dinner is always Indian food. The older we get, the more we want Indian food and without planning and determination it is getting harder to make it. So, I have a food bank in my freezer for days I cannot/don't want to cook.
The Food Bank is stocked with heat and serve dishes. I cook double at every meal, immediately cool the food I'm freezing and then put it away. Don't let food you're freezing for another meal sit out all day long and then freeze it.
For my food bank
For idlis I pick a week when I am feeling well and then make a large batch, cool immediately and freeze. Nowadays I freeze four idlis and a sandwich bag of chutney...instant dinner for HD on nights I am too tired or too full to cook.
Idlis freeze perfectly and re-heat excellently when steamed over a pan of water or in the microwave. I prefer the steaming method for re-heating, as it is as good as fresh but don't over steam them, or your idlis will fall apart. I freeze larger batches if I can, when Indian guests are arriving, so at least once they can have a breakfast of hot idlis, and hopefully be impressed.
Before they arrive I also make 2-3 different chutneys and freeze them (remember the legs that can't stand for too long now?), so all this helps me to give them good, food when they are here. In my younger days I have made 400 idlis and frozen them for parties, so guests could start with idli sambar! They used to enjoy them and drowned in a bowl of sambar no one realized my idlis weren't as soft as they could be.
Anyway HD's family always made the best idlis: huge, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth kind, and though idlis are not my favorite food, I decided I was going to try and find the best recipe. My Idli Diary goes back to 1984 and shows persistence and comments on a lot of idlis I have eaten in other people's homes and made in my own. Going through a lot of recipes online in May and June, I finally had to decide the one I've concocted by putting two recipes together and used for the last five years, was the winner in the end. Here it is:

1 c urad (using rice cooker cup)
2 3/4 c. ponni rice)
½ cup cooked Jasmine rice or any other regular rice, but not Basmati.
½ tsp Arm & Hammer baking soda.
Salt to taste.

Soak urad dal and rice separately for 6 hours or overnight.
Grind urad first, with one cup water.
I want it really soft and fluffy so I use my electric stone grinder for this, though for 25 years I’ve done it in a blender.
To save time, I grind rice (slightly coarse) in a blender wit half a cup water, while the other grinder is doing the urad.
Remove rice mixture and grind cooked rice and baking soda in blender with a little water, till fine.
Mix 20 strokes after mixing urad, rice and cooked rice mixture to incorporate air in mixture.
Let it ferment in a warm place.
Just before steaming, add salt and ¾ Tbsp Clabber Girl baking powder and mix well.
Pour into greased cups of idli stand and steam for 10 mins.


I make idlis on a hot day for ease of fermentation.
I discovered Ponni rice in 2006. Since then my idlis have achieved five star status.
Ponni rice is a short fat rice, ideal for idlis...and I had never heard of it or seen it before 2006...that's the fun of cooking discover something new all the time.
If Ponni rice is not available use par boiled rice. If your blender can't handle par boiled rice, or you can't get it, use any rice except Basmati.
Most people in a hurry just use idli rawa (sold in Indian grocery stores) and urad and are happy with the results.


Idli batter has to ferment well for best results. (Seema Bhat of Recipe Junction suggested a pinch of yeast in cold weather...I have to try that).
Overfermented batter will get a yellow top and have to be thrown out.
Grease idli stand with non-stick spray using a little squirt and spread oil around the cup with fingers, paying attention to rim of each cup where idlis stick…can be done with cooking oil too.
Too much spray will result in yellow idlis.
Put idli stand into boiling water for better results.
I use a ten quart pot to steam my idlis in..
Water must be below the lowest idli plate, not touching it, or that plate will have ‘drowned idlis’.
Do not open lid for ten minutes.
Dip a finger in water and touch surface of top idli…if nothing sticks to it, it’s done.
Turn off stove, close pot and leave for another two minutes.
Remove stand and let it cool for five minutes before removing idlis.
Use point of sharp knife to go around rim and then idlis come out clean.
Serve with coconut chutney (recipe on this site). Chutney powder with oil also makes a good accompaniment as does sambar, palya or kurma.

For diabetic me: 2 idlis are the right amount to eat. I control the amount by treating myself to the second idli spread with 1/2 tsp ghee and sprinkled with 1/4 tsp sugar or make smaller idlis (like the picture above) and eat three! The mind 'eats' too and has to be content/controlled for good health.


I love research and the latest direction this interest has taken is researching Indian Food. Imagine my delight to discover the great scientist KT Achaya's book: Indian Food, A Historical Companion. HD does not know it, but the book's a gift from him to most of the 'gifts' he give me, he will know it's from him when he sees the bill...
Anway this is what Mr. Achaya says about the history of idlis: "While Dosai and Vadai have a hoary two-thousand-year history in Tamil country, Idli is a foreign import. The earliest reference to something of a precursor to Idli occurs in the Kannada writing of Sivakotyacharya in 920 AD, and in the subsequent Sanskrit Manasollasa (1130 AD). But the three elements of modern Idli making are missing in these references: use of rice grits along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix, and steaming the batter to fluffiness".

Indeed, the Chinese chronicler Xuang Zang (7th century AD) categorically stated that there were no steaming vessels in India. Achaya writes that the cooks who accompanied the Hindu Kings of Indonesia between 800-1200 AD, brought fermentation and steaming methods and their dish Kedli to South India (Thirai Kadal Odiyum Tinpandam Thedu!).

While writing this article two friends came to mind, whom I'd like to mention here: Savitri Nair, who's idlis and recipe impressed and inspired me as a young bride and Nacha Subbramaniam, who made the best idlis for me every week for months,when I was laid up after an accident in 1986..and shared her secret of adding cooked rice and Clabber Girl with me. My thanks to both of you.


Monisha said...

I have been looking for years for a recipe for soft idlis-they turned out great!Thanks so much for sharing the recipe.

lasyaflow said...

Hello! I love reading about idlis I am French a bit of a health food nut and consider this dish like a gift to humanity! I bought a (small!) grinding electric stone a few weeks back that fits in my kitchen and the first thing I did this morning was to go and see how the "maavu" had risen! It needs still a bit more fermentation and in the meantime I found your article. As I am a health food nut as I said I try to eat most of the time Organic but cannot find organic urad dal here in Paris. I have also found that idlis can be done with brown rice...I have brown basmati which I used but I see that you don't advice this rice... after buying this machine I have been disappointed with my three first attempts as I added rice flakes as suggested in the recipe I saw and probably be the flakes we get here made the idlis sticky . This is my 4th attempt. Next time I will get some other rice then (maybe half brown) ... I hope one day the miracle will happen, otherwise as someone said while giving explanation on a blog about this fabulous dish: Pray God ! Any tip for brown/half brown rice idli?
Thank for you prose which I enjoyed reading! said...

Hi lasyaflow:

Thanks so much for your comments. It is so commendable to know you are trying idlis.
I have a recipe that is working very well for me now and that is 1 cup urad and 2 3/4 cup ordinary rice with 1 tsp fenugreek seeds soaked with the rice. I do not add rice flakes as it turns the idlis sticky.
After trying many different varieties of rice, ordinary rice works the best. Of all places, I get mine in a Mexican store from a bin. I soak for longer than I used to...overnight 10-12 hours, grind urad soft and fluffy, grind rice a little coarse like semolina. I add 1/2 tsp of baking powder to the mix while in it's in the grinder. I'm fermenting it longer too, just as you mentioned. Overnight and half a day, I'd say. Before pouring I add salt and 1/2 tsp of Clabber Girl baking soda mixed in a little water and beat the mix about 20 times by hand to incorporate more air.
Water has to be boiling when the steamer goes in...this helps idlis puff up better.
As for the's all an experiment. I don't know much about brown or half brown but the closest thing to what my mother used, is Uncle Ben's parboiled rice here in the US. I know some people use red rice here to increase the nutritional value. I haven't found organic urad either...but I do know the whiter the dal the better the color of the idlis.
I use left over batter for dosas (Indian crepes) or make it all into idlis, freeze and defrost surplus when ready to eat. rinsing the frozen idlis and placing them in the microwave makes them really soft or re-steaming them.
Best of luck and do let me know how your idlis come out. The rice lentil combo makes them a good protein.