Idli is not originally an Indian dish, but an import to India — I’m full of trivia. 🙂
When I was at CII idli was not on the menu, so to speak. A fermented mixture of beans and rice, steamed, then served with chutney or sambar, idli is a home cooked dish which you can sometime find out.
Idli batter follows the same steps as dosa, but idli is steamed rather than cooked on a hot griddle. There is what’s called an idli steamer you can purchase to make the standard shape, but you can also make them in ramkins or mandoline trays you fit into a steamer.
Idli is a fermented dish, which depending on how long you ferment can be bland with the flavor of rice to a slightly sour flavor to it not unlike a very mild yogurt. However you like it, they pairs well with spicy coconut curries and sambar. The living bacteria become active the first few minutes in the steamer producing gas — causing the idli to rise — before the heat kills the bacteria. The rice absorbs water and sets their slightly domed shape. This makes them somewhat porous and spongy, perfect to absorb something souplike (such as sambar).
There are sweet versions of idli. Many use palm sugar called jagery and dried fruits or nuts. More artful presentations can be made by adding decorative slices of vegetables to the idli pan before adding the batter, or mixing in bits of this and that to add flavor and eye appeal.
These days Indian families, short on patience, are searching for a quick fix to the overnight rise. The alternative to the overnight ferment? The addition of an antacid product. Think plop, plop; fizz, fizz giving rise to the batter which holds long enough until set, the product is called Eno.
With a food processor idli batter is simple to make and with a little imagination you can make it even without the idli pan — so give it a go.
Perhaps the best part about idli is what you can do with the leftovers. Idli is best served fresh from the steamer. Make a few extra and the next morning deep fry them for a high protein crisp faux-french fry. (Photos coming soon.)
What follows are the step by step instructions for idli.
Step one: Find a ratio of beans to rice, and chose a rice.
I’ve come to like the texture from 1 cup beans to 3 cups uncooked rice. Dosa can be made with only beans and upwards to 1:5 beans:rice. The more rice, the fluffier the end product. I’ve met people who insist dosa is made from parboiled, jasmine, short grain and sometimes long. Myself, I’ve even made it with brown rice.
Rava, Indian parboiled rice which has been powdered, can be purchased online through a grocer. Alternatively, parboiled rice, such as Uncle Bens in the US, can be soaked with the beans and purred in the mixer. I’ve experimented with uncooked Japanese short grain brown and white rice soaked overnight and ground with the beans. These idli were less light, but good in a pinch and perfect for deep frying later.
Step two: Soak your beans and rice.
Urad dal has a bacteria which will ferment, so it is imperative that you do not wash the beans if you want the ferment. You can soak the beans and rice together, or apart, but soak at least 8 hours.
Some say that soaking the beans and rice apart makes the batter lighter, but with what machine you grind, how long you soak, how thick the batter is, and how much rice you use will all will contribute to how to how light your idli are.
Step three: Grind the beans and rice together.
Drain the beans and rice. For a faster ferment, use all or some of the water to grind the beans and rice. My young friend used a blender, I use a Vitamix, some homes use a Mixi, the shops in India use a stone or industrial wet grinder. The consistency should be like pancake batter. You can always add water to your batter later, so it’s okay if your batter is thick.
Step four: To ferment or not.
Fermenting will give the dosa a sourdough like flavour and lighten the batter. Simply cover and leave in a warm place overnight. If the ferment doesn’t take, put a ladle of the batter in a bowl and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of whole fenugreek seeds, which share the same bacteria as the urad dal. Pour the cup of batter back into the main batter through a strainer (to remove the seeds), stir and cover. If your home is too cold, try placing the batter in the oven or near a heater.
Alternatively, you can add citrus acid and baking soda . It’s a short cut some people use, but only just before you use the batter.
Step five: Making idli.
First, place about 1/2 inch of water into your steamer.
Lightly oil your idli trays or moulds.
Turn on the burner under the pot and when the water is at a rolling boil carefully put the insert into the steamer, close the lid, and turn down the heat to a low setting. Set the timer for 20 minutes and do not open the pot again or you will lose the steam.
When their time is up remove them from the pan and let them cool for two or three minutes.
Remove with a rubber spatula and serve — they are exceptional.
To personalize idli think about these questions during each step:
Step one: Soaking.
- Do I need a complete protein? Adjust my ratio of beans to rice.
- What texture do I want? Lighter and crispier, more rice. Softer? More beans.
Step two: Liquify the beans and rice.
- Do I want a thin dosa? More water.
- Do I want a thick dosa? Less water.
Steps three and four: Grinding and fermenting.
- Do I want it sour? Ferment it over night. Keep the fermented batter in the fridge for a week, it will keep indefinity and the sourness will icrease.
- I don’t want to ferment, but I want a sour flavor. Add yogurt or whey in place of some of the water when blending and don’t ferment.
- I want it light, but without the ferment. Use fruit salts (it’s sold as an antacid, but used in the kitchen for an artificial ferment).
- I want it to be flavorful: Add one or two tablespoons of a different kind of bean when grinding. Or, mix in a powdered bean or spice just before using.
- Add a healthy pinch of salt to add flavor.
Step five: Cook
- Do you have the idli pan? Look around your kitchen for something that you can use to steam such as ramekins or doughnut pans.
This post is long and detailed, which might dissuade you from making Idli, or it’s cousin, Dosa. That is my error in trying to be thorough. My larger point is that the formula and technique for the batter can be modified. By going into detail I hope you do try both idli and dosa in the usual Indian style — they are wonderful, full of flavour, and healthy. But I also hope you experiment in your kitchens, especially if you’re vegetarian. Myself, I’ve used the batter to make “crepe layer cakes”, faux-enchiladas, psudo-blitzes, and mock-quesidillas.