Tuesday, February 26, 2008

1001 Idlis

Model Idlis
For detailed recipes, here are some of the best blogs I came across..
Mahanandi's rice grit Idlis
Nupur's Kanchipuram Idli with a running commentary on the problems faced
Inbavalli's Kanchipuram Idli
Rupa's plate Idlis
Mahanandi's Rosematta Idlis made from red rice
Anjalis pictures of Idli's in a Jackfruit leaf cup
Shantihhh's Idli Video
Lakshmi's Raw rice Idlis

Idli - A Primer
Idli is the much loved and most common breakfast food in South India . It is hard to define what an idli is. You could say idli is a steamed cake made from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal. But you have varieties of idlis made without rice, without urad dal and without fermentation !

So my working definition is that Idli is not a dish, but a technique of steaming a batter into a fluffy cake. For a long time, Idlis were made from lentil batter and did not have rice in them.

The first recorded mention of something similar to an Idli is in the Kannada book Vaddaradhane written 1100 years back, where iddalige ( urad dal cakes) is listed as one of eighteen items ritually served to a brahmachari (celibate student).

Another 1000 year old inscription records that lentils were first soaked overnight in buttermilk, ground to a batter, seasoned with pepper, coriander, cumin & asafetida and then cooked into a dish resembling an Idli.

A few centuries later, rice was added to this lentil batter, giving rise to the idlis we know today. Dr. K.T. Achaya, the food scientist and historian argues that unlike dosa and vada, Idli is a foreign import.

Unlike China / South east Asia, fermenting and steaming were techniques not widely practised in India. The Chinese chronicler Xuang Zang (7th century AD) asserts that there were no steaming vessels in India. Even today, very few Indian recipes call for steaming. With no cheese making / wine making tradition, fermentation was also not clearly understood in ancient India.

Achaya argues that around 800 years back, it was customary for the Hindu Kings of Indonesia to visit South India for brides. The cooks who accompanied them brought the fermenting and steaming methods and their dish Kedli, (the probable ancestor of Idli) to South India.

Any cake or bread needs a leavening agent. The leavening agent fills the dough / batter with gas puffing it up from the inside, giving a fluffy texture. Without this, all we'll get on cooking is a hard , inedible mess. Yeast is the most common leavening agent in most breads and idlis.

When idli batter is left overnight in a warm place, wild yeast ferments it, filling it with carbon di oxide, puffing up the batter to over twice its original volume.

Soaked Urad dal on grinding gets filled with air and becomes a foam. Rice does not have this ability and becomes a dense paste on grinding. So for real soft idlis, the dal is ground separately into a foam and the soaked rice is ground coarsely. Both are mixed together and left to ferment. In an ideal batter we have coarsely ground rice grits suspended in a foamy dal matrix.

The gas produced by the leavening agent is trapped in this foamy matrix. On heating, this gas expands, giving us fluffy idlis . The numerous small holes you see on tearing an idli were created by pockets of expanded gas.

All techniques of making soft fluffy idlis have just one goal :
Make the batter hold as much gas as possible.

This is possible only if the leavening agent works well and the gases formed do not leak out but remain trapped in this foamy matrix.

The batter won't rise if it is too cold as yeast becomes dormant at low temperatures. Addition of iodine ( from iodized salt) or chlorine ( from chlorinated tap water) kills / slows down yeast and prevent the batter from rising.

To trap the gas, it is essential that you grind the soaked urad dal till light and fluffy without adding too much water. It should almost be a foam. If you drop a pinch of batter in water, it should float. Using whole husked urad dal gives the best results.

If the batter gets hot while griding it lowers its ability to trap gas. So traditionally, high speed blenders are not used. Instead slow speed stone grinders are preferred. However you can avoid heating up the batter by

1. Use ice water / cubes in place of water while grinding.
2. Let the dal soak in water overnight inside a fridge.
3. Not running the blender continuously, but in short bursts.

Remember that the batter is filled with gas. So vigorously mixing the batter before steaming lets some of the precious gas out.

Urad dal batter can lift up dramatically on steaming. However, it lacks the mechanical strength to maintain its puffed state. So a batter with too much dal will puff up but deflate as fast!

Rice batter is dense and does not trap air like the dal batter and so does not lift up. So an idly with too much rice will be hard.

Fenugreek seeds and castor seeds ( Kottaimuthu / Aamanakku) create a better quality foamy matrix than urad dal and can dramatically puff up idlis. But they leave a bitter aftertaste and so are used sparingly. Fenugreek batter also gives a sheen to idly surface and prevents it from sticking to the pan.

Ideally a ratio of 3 parts of rice to one part of dal seems to work best. A pinch of fenugreek seeds / castor beans is also used.

Tamils consume two varieties of rice - the raw rice and the semi cooked (parboiled) rice. Raw rice has the husk removed and polished. Parboiled rice is boiled in the husk, and then has the husk removed and polished. Parboiled rice is easier to cook and more nutritious than raw rice. Short parboiled rice ( called idly rice) is the most common rice used for idlis. If idly rice is not available, substitute with any short grained rice like Risotto rice (arborio) or Japanese rice (Mochi)/ Rosematta rice.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your website today. I find it wildly informative and very interesting. I enjoy reading it!! -- (Rinks)

satya said...

Came here for the first time.And really glad to have found it.'It's different.':-D Even though designed for the first time cooks:-),it immensely helps the experienced ones too.
Thank you very much for the informative posts.

Anonymous said...

Good morning Ramki,

I made Idlis. Twice!

The first time I used Mung Beans (the little green instead of the the little black urid dahl).

The second time I used the whole Urid Dahl and some yello Lenses. The batter were growing big over night.

It worked. The batter was not smooth as for Indian Idli and not white. So the Idli was not very fluffy and green from the Mungbeans the first time and the second time grey because of the shell of the black Urid Dahl.
Hagen said it was good - I think he didn't want to stop me with experiments of indian cooking ;-) We ate it with chutney from fresh Coconut whith fresh Red Chillies! It was the first time, that I cracked a coconut. Coconut is expansive as eating Thali with 6 people in India. So if you visit us and plan a coockout in Cologne it's good to bring the coconut whith you from India ;-)

I used a big Pot with a bit Water on the bottom and put some small Pots in it filled with idlibatter. Over all I streched a towel fixed with a rubber band and applicate some more batter on it (I heared about that's the way we make "Dampfnudeln", a sweet ball from yeast dough steamed on a towel).

In the evening I will use the rest of the Coconutchutney together with Peas.

Greetings to Chennai!

Anonymous said...

I found your website through Mahanandi's list. You have an amazing theory. All the best for your book!
Bharthy

Srivalli said...

Ramki..this is an excellent resource...thanks for the detailed post. check out my Kanchipuram-idli when you have time.

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Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

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