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.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Download 1001 South Indian Curries

With luck, my book 1001 South Indian Vegetarian curries covering Andhra, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Kerala would be out this year. You can grab your soft copy below.

Click here to download 1001 South Indian Curries ( pdf file : 1 Mb)

/Happy cooking

Saturday, February 23, 2008

1001 Uppuma ( South Indian savoury porridge )

Uppuma ( ooh- pooh- ma) is a South Indian savoury porridge, generally made from cream of wheat ( Sooji / Rava ). Known as Upma in Tamil & Malayalam, Uppindi in Telugu, Upeet in Marathi and Uppittu in Kannada, they all mean "Salty- flour". In north India the savoury version is not cooked , though we find a sweet version called Sooji Halwa. In south India, the savoury version is the most common, though we have a sweet version too, called Kesari.

Model Upmas: These mouthwatering Upmas are some of the best recipes I've come across
Semiya Upma
Rava Upma
Vegetable Upma
Cracked wheat Upma
Dalia - Cracked wheat Upma 2: With some great photos
Oatmeal Upma

Uppuma - A Primer
Uppuma is nothing but a porridge made from cracked grains. Porridge is one of the oldest foods of mankind (they have been found in the stomachs of 5000 year old bodies). For much of history fine flour was a luxury as flour making technology was not available. However, it is easy to coarsely grind a cereal or legume. These grits were then boiled in a liquid. This is a simple, foolproof way to draw nourishment from grains or legumes. So it is no wonder almost all nations have their own versions of Upma made from locally available grains, flavoured by their traditional flavourings.

You will find Oats porridge ( from steel cut oats or rolled oats) in most of Europe and USA ( cooked with milk and sugar), and maize porridge in Mexico ( cooked with milk and chocolate).

A variety of cornmeal porridges are common in the southern US. Sorghum porridge is common in many African nations. The famous peas porridge made from pea grits are eaten in England and Scotland. You'll bump into Barley porridge ( Tsampa) in Tibet, Cornmeal porridge ( polenta) in Italy, Buckwheat porridge in parts of Russia, Millet porridge in Namibia and Middle East,and Rye porridge in Finland.

Though I prefer my Uppuma semisolid ( and that's why the recipe calls for four cups of water for each cup of grits) , you can alter the amount of water to make it thicker or mushier. Remember that Uppuma thickens dramatically on cooling.

In a good uppuma, the grits can be tasted separately and have not turned into mush. The secret to doing this is to precook the grits by dry roasting them. They should spend as less time as possible simmering in boiling liquid, usually less than a minute. The more time the grits are boiled, the more are the chances that they become mush. Learn this key skill and cooking up a variety of Uppumas is a breeze.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

1001 Dosas

Model Recipes : The blogs below showcase some of the best dosa recipes I have come across

Pesarattu : Recipes don't come clearer than this..
Palak Dosa : Siri adds an interesting twist by using spinach puree.
Poha Dosa Vanaja's pancake sized dosas
Wheat flour Dosa

Dosas - A Primer
Dosa, a wafer thin rice - lentil crepe is a very popular South Indian breakfast food. Dosa is generally served with sambar or chutney. South Indians have been eating dosas for thousands of years

Dosa is normally made from a batter of rice( 3 parts) and urad dal ( 1 part). These are soaked overnight, and ground to a batter the consistency of condensed milk.

Being a thin crepe, Dosa does not require fermentation. Why ? for the same reason Naan's and rotis require fermentation, but chappatis and parathas don't. In all these foods, fermentation is used to make a thick foodstuff spongy. A thin crepe like a dosa or a flatbread like a chapati need not be spongy and so do not require fermentation.

However, in most places the same batter is used for Dosa, Idli and Uttapams. Idli and Uttappams being thick, need to be spongy. So this comon batter is normally fermented.

A variety of cereals and lentils can be used for Dosas. At one end we have the neer dosa made only from a cereal ( rice) and at the other end we have the pesarattu made only from pulses ( Mung dal) . Most dosas however, use a combination of cereals and pulses, thereby providing both carbohydrates and protein.

Restaurant quality thin, crisp dosas are impossible in homes unless you have a large thick skillet. A large, thick skilet soaks up heat and transfers it all at once to the dosa, instantly converting it from batter to wafer. A thin skillet either steams the dosa (if it is not hot enough)and makes it soft or burns the dosa if it is too hot.

Only the dosas made from rice and urad dal and some pulses remain crisp. Many other cereals ( wheat, ragi etc) make perfectly edible, but soft dosas.

Dosa making takes quite a few tries to master. However,do not be worried by the shape or size of your dosas. Even when they become a soggy mess because you are unable to flip them as a single sheet, they still remain very edible !

Folk wisdom has that the first dosa is always a sorry mess and I've found it to be absolutely true, time and time again.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

1001 Vada ( Indian Lentil Fritters)

Vada- A Primer
Vadas are deep fried lentil cakes or lentil fritters as they are known in the west.

Lentils are eaten across the world and so varieties of fritters exist in all cultures. In south India, they are normally made from the commonly available Urad dal, Chana dal and tuvar dal.

Batter made from a variety of cereals / flour are also deep fried and called vadas, but in the true sense of the term, Vada denotes only lentil fritters. So despite the name, the famous vada pav of Bombay is actually not a vada. Neither is the Madhur Vada of Karnataka, which is made from rice flour, rava and maida. To qualify as a true vada, the batter should be made from lentils and should be deep fried in oil.

This definition works well for most south Indian Vadas. But Anjali points out that a batter made from rice flour or cereals like millet are deep fried in Konkani coast. So we need a different definition of a Vada for the North. Any takers ?

Any deep fried lentil batter would taste good is the unspoken assumption behind Vadas.

Almost any type of fresh lentils, soaked and ground lentils, or boiled lentils can be used to make vadas. The taste and texture of the vada will vary with the lentil used.

Note that certain lentils (especially red kidney beans/rajma) contain toxins which are destroyed only on cooking. So these beans cannot be soaked, groundup and used for vadas. They need to be soaked, cooked and then used to make vadas.

A properly cooked Vada is not oily or laden with calories. Great vadas are possible only if you understand the the core deep frying principle - Maintain the oil at the right temperature . All tips below aim to keep the oil at the right temperature.

1. Use Peanut oil, sunflower oil or canola oil. These oils can heat up to higher temperatures without smoking - essential for cooking vadas.

2. Choose a deep,heavy skillet. Add enough oil so that it is atleast twice the depth of the food you fry. Using less oil results in its temperature dropping fast when batter is added.

3. Fry at the right temperature. Too high and you burn the batter. Too low and the batter soaks up oil and becomes greasy. If the oil smokes, it is too hot. To check temperature, drop a couple of bits of batter into the oil. At the right temperature, batter sinks a bit, but bobs right up and browns within 45 seconds.If the batter sinks, oil is not hot enough. If it dances on the surface, oil is too hot.

4. Do not overcrowd the oil. Carefully add the batter, leaving lots of space around each piece. Too much food causes oil temperature to drop and makes the food greasy.

5. Cook with fresh oil. Unless filtered and stored well, oil earlier used for deep frying may smoke or infuse a stale flavour to Vadas.

6. Cook with clean oil. After every couple of batches, filter away the particles of batter floating around.

All vadas need to be served hot, with a spicy chutney. Leftover vadas can be soaked in yogurt / rasam and refrigerated. They stay good for a couple of days. Leftover vadas can also be used to cook up Vada Curry - a restaurant innovation designed to use up the leftover Vadas. In this curry, vada is mashed up and simmered in the curry base.

And that's my first submission for Rushina's Pakora contest.

Model Recipes

These are some interesting Vada recipes I came across..

Dhivya's Banana Flower Vada
Anjali's Multigrain Vada
Kurma's Urad dal Vada
Divya's Dosai Mavu Vada - a different twist on the Vada, proving you can deep fry just about any batter and it'll taste good.

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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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