Any self respecting south Indian takes pride in two things, filter coffee and soft fluffy idlis. R.K Narayan, in his work "A dateless diary", mentions that a family's reputation is at stake if word spreads that they do not serve good coffee. I would extend the same emotion to idlis as well. Just kidding.
Idlis are round steamed lentil and rice cakes.They are bland on their own and need accompaniments like chutneys/podis and sambar. There are many varieties and recipes depending on which region of south India you belong to. There are two distinct methods, both use udad dal but differ in the use of idli rice or idli rava. Every one has their theory on the proportion of rice and lentils used as well. In Andhra, we use idli rava, whereas in Tamil Nadu idli rice is used. My dear friends from Karnataka and Kerala, I did not forget you, I am simply unaware of your idli making idiosyncrasies! Or should we call them idliosyncrasies? In most south Indian households, idlis are a breakfast staple. We grow up eating idlis that our moms/grandmoms make and they kind of become a standard for comparison. What I am saying is, we south Indians take pride in our idlis and in particular the way we ate them during our childhood. A well meaning friend who loves to cook, once offered to teach me her way of making idlis when she heard that I make mine with idli rava. While I am open to learning new things, I did not have the heart to tell her that I am quite happy with my way of making them. Thank you but no thank you :).
Agreed, there is a slight difference in texture and taste between the two. The ones with idli rice are soft, fluffy and spongy, where as the ones with idli rava while soft and fluffy, have more texture as you bite into them.
There are enough recipes on the internet for making idlis. As long as the consistency of the batter is right, fermentation happens and they are steamed appropriately, they will taste great, irrespective of what you make them with. If your idlis are hard, the batter did not ferment well. If they are flat, the batter was too thin and had too much water.
Just for the record, here is my family's recipe.
I have step by step pictures after the recipe in this post.
*Whole udad dal(skinned black gram) 1 cup
Idli rava 2 cups
Methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional) 1 tsp.
Oil or *ghee to line the idli plates
Salt to taste.
Procedure for making the batter:
Wash and soak udad dal with fenugreek seeds overnight or 6 hours
Rinse the idli rava in a separate bowl once and soak overnight or 6 hours- try to find fine idli rava, sometimes if the rava is too coarse, I grind it slightly after soaking.
If you have a wet grinder, great! Just dump the udad dal with 1cup water and let it do it's magic. Mix every five minutes and after ten minutes, add another 1/2 cup water. The udad dal mix should be smooth and fluffy. You should not feel any coarse pieces of dal after grinding.
Otherwise, grind the udad dal in a mixer grinder till you get a smooth batter.
Take a large mixing bowl, with enough room to accommodate the batter when it ferments and rises.
Squeeze handfuls of idli rava to remove as much water as possible and place in the bowl.
Add the ground up smooth udad dal batter and mix well.
Add roughly 3/4 tbsp. salt and mix well. The batter should not be too stiff or too runny.
We would leave it at room temperature in India to let it ferment overnight or 6/8/or 12 hours depending on the room temperature. Here I prefer to warm the oven to 180 F, turn it off and place the mixing bowl in the oven for 12 hours. During winter, I warm the oven to 180 F every 6 hours and keep an eye on it. Do not leave it for more than 16 hours, it might start to spoil. If it does not ferment in the oven, try to place the bowl in sunlight in your home, that should help.
When it ferments it will rise a little. Mix it well once. The batter is ready for making idlis.
If you are not using it right away, refrigerate it.
Procedure for making idlis:
Mix the batter well, the consistency is very important. The batter should not be too thin or thick. You should be able to get a dollop of the batter when you use a spoon, the dollop should not flop and start dripping. If it is too thick and not fluffy, you can add a tablespoon or two of water.
Grease idli moulds with oil or ghee.
Place in idli steamer and follow the instructions.
If using a pressure cooker, make sure you take the whistle off. We are steaming idlis, not cooking them. If you cook them, you will get hard disks. Not good eats.
Once the idlis are done cooking, let them rest. This resting period of atleast five minutes is very important if you want to scoop out perfect smooth idlis.
Add a few drops of ghee and serve with chutneys and or sambar. Those few drops of ghee elevate the taste of idli tremendously.
Two dishes that are plain depressing to eat without ghee are dal and rice and idlis.
I know making the batter is initially a little time consuming, but makes mornings easy when you have the batter ready.
There are many tasty things you can do with the left over batter. If you are tired of eating idlis for two days in a row, you could make utappams with them.
If there is just a little batter left, you could add oinios, ginger, green chillies and veggies and make ponganalu/paniyarams, or you could deep fry the batter for punukulu. I once even poured some in a waffle iron to make waffle utappam!
*Why whole udad dal? Because my mom told me so! :).Idlis do taste better with whole udad dal, not really sure why.
*If you want to stay vegan, avoid ghee and use a substitute if desired.
Making the batter
Wash the idli rava and fill with enough water so that it can absorb all the water while it soaks
Wash the udad dal and add methi seeds and soak in plenty of water.
The next morning both soak up water and expand.
Drain all the water from udad dal and grind it. I used a wet grinder. I added the dal with 1 cup water.Some of the dal tends to get stuck to the walls of the grinder, keep mixing it during the grinding process to make a smooth batter. I added another 1/2 cup water in between and let the grinder run till I got a smooth fluffy batter
If you observe closely, you can see how airy and smooth the batter is.
Take a large mixing bowl that will have enough room for the batter to rise. Add the smooth udad dal batter to the bowl. Squeeze the idli rava between your palms to squeeze as much water from it as possible.
Please note the texture and thickness of the batter. Also observe that the bowl has enough space for the batter to rise.
It is super cold here and leaving it at room temperature to rise does not work. Pre heat oven to 180 F and turn it off. Place in oven for 6 hours. If it does not rise , heat oven again and let it sit in it for another three to four hours. It should rise.
If you observe closely, you will notice the air bubbles in the batter. that is due to fermentation. You can also smell the difference.
Mix the batter to store in the refrigerator. My mom's tip: take it out of the fridge an hour before you are ready to make them. I sometimes forget to do that.
Mix the batter before you are ready to make idlis. If it seems too thick, add a couple of spoonful's of water. The batter should not bee too thick or too thin.
Grease idli molds with oil or ghee and put the batter. Do not overfill the molds, idlis will rise and get stuck to the plate on top.
Years of excessive use has made my idli stand look like the leaning tower of Pisa, but it still does the job!
See how beautifully they have puffed up. Give them a few minutes to rest and scoop them out gently with a wide spoon. They taste wonderful with a drizzle of ghee and chutneys and sambar.