The subtle art of Idli

While historian Edward Anderson tweeted last week, 'Idlis are the most boring things in the world', obviously he doesn’t know any better.

Published: 18th October 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th October 2020 08:35 PM   |  A+A-

Chef Arun Sundararaj

Chef Arun Sundararaj

Idli is zen. Irrespective of Englishmen saying it's boring, idli is the only food whose blandness is a taste by itself. As a child I disliked the vegetables in the sambhar. I would make a hue and cry about the spiciness of coconut chutney and podi - gunpowder in slang.

Mother would roll her eyes and say, "This silly boy has no idea how to enjoy a great breakfast." It’s only when I grew up that I realised the idli's unique flavour that complemented the various elements of a perfect South Indian breakfast.

Until I joined catering college and then moved on to working in hotels, I never thought making idlis would be so complex - if mum could make them, any one could. I got it wrong. The art of making a great idli is as complex as it is tasty since it has intricate elements and requires a process that involves a lot of science. It were the great South Indian restaurants of King Circle, Matunga, that made south of the Vindhyas breakfast and tiffin famous in Mumbai.

Their amazing dosas and idlis were made by humble restaurateurs at home. The idli and dosa are adaptable enough to be eaten for all three meals of the day and as an afternoon snack. My friend from catering college was from one of these families.

Freshly out of catering college, we naively thought we knew everything that was taught at catering college and it was enough to run restaurants and work in kitchens. How wrong we were. My friend’s father was an accountant by profession but he ran his food business with pure passion and great knowledge about all his products.

His rare combination of passion and humility made us change the way we looked at recipes. We were confident young chaps who thought we knew everything about food. When he asked us about type of the dal to make a great idli, we replied, "Oh that’s easy, urad dal of course."

But an idli is not just about bunging some dal into a pot. He began our first step in idli knowledge: the dal must be sun-dried first, and certainly not dried under ultraviolet light as it’s done nowadays. The moisture content in sun-dried dal would be less since the lentil will absorb more water that makes the batter lighter.

It was my first life lesson as a rookie chef - learn the basics first and have in-depth knowledge of ingredients and processes before cooking. The family was from Udupi and they made their idlis differently - urad dal ground to a fine paste which was then mixed with broken rice or idli rawa batter in the morning.

Their method is different from the traditional way of grinding. We youngsters went on overdrive, looking into the process of idli creation. It involved getting the best quality rice, whole urad dal and fenugreek seeds from Chennai.

Short grain rice is best to get the swelling plumpy lightness of being. Attention must be paid to the manner it’s washed and soaked as well as the time taken for grinding the ingredients: first the urad dal and then add the rice so that the paste is a bit coarse. Adding the correct amount of salt before the fermentation process keeps the lovely lightness generated during the fermentation process.

The fermentation happens because of the reaction between the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria in the methi and dal. They capture the yeast from air; keep the amount of fenugreek sensible because an excess will make the idlis bitter. The period of fermentation and temperature of the mix are taken into account before steaming. It’s easy once you learn the correct proportions.

I remember a manager who worked with me saying, "Chef, I want to learn how to make idlis because when I steam them in the pressure cooker they look great, smiling at me. But as soon as I open the lid, they collapse."

 The idli is as versatile as it comes. Many versions exist and people have built restaurant chains on just idlis. Rawa idli is made with rawa and fermented with dahi. Kanchipuram idli tempered with cashewnuts. The thatee idli from Karnataka, idlis made from millets, stuffed idlis, ragi idlis, oats and rava idlis, quinoa idlis, mini idlis, podi idlis with different chutneys—the list is endless.

The idli anticipated sustainability centuries ago; leftover idli from breakfast can be converted into idli upma in the evening, or cut into pieces and fried as a snack. The idli also believes in reincarnation: there now exists a Chinese version named chilli idli. Is the idli vegetarian? Perish the thought. Now you get keema idlis and chicken pepper fry idlis too. It’s not just the ingredients and process alone that makes the perfect idli but also the secret potion of love and memories!

Chicken Pepper Fry Idli


  • Chicken: 500 gm
  • Turmeric powder: 5 gm
  • Coconut oil: 10 ml
  • Shallots, chopped: 60 gm
  • Green chillies: 20 gm
  • A sprig of curry leaves
  • Ginger-garlic paste: 100 gm
  • Chilli powder: 20 gm
  • Saunf powder: 5 gm
  • Garam masala powder: 5 gm
  • Pepper powder: 7 gm
  • Salt to taste
  • Coriander leaves
  • Idli batter

Instructions: Marinate the chicken with salt, ginger, garlic and turmeric, and slow-braise till well-cooked. Cook and shred the chicken and keep aside. In a pan heat the coconut oil, add shallots, chillies and curry leaves. Saute till golden. Add in ginger garlic paste and mix well. Add spice powders (except pepper) and salt, and mix well. Add the chicken and toss well. Add pepper powder and coriander leaves and mix well.

  • Cool the mixture
  • Pour a small spoon of idli batter into the mould and top with the chicken stuffing. Cover the filling with more batter.
  • Steam for 12 minutes
  • Remove and serve with spicy tomato chutney

(The writer is Executive Chef, Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi)


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