I love Idlis. The best part about this wondrous dish from South India is its simplicity. When I rave about the beauty of an Idli, people who are not as fascinated by it as much as I am wonder what all the fuss is about? But, the craze for Idlis is something that has been passed on to me through my genes. My family is equally crazy about Idlis as I am. Which is why, when my niece, Nidhi says she is not too find of Idlis, it makes me wonder, was there a mistake in the hospital after she was born? I mean, you know, mix-ups, exchanges and so on?
My aunt, Rita makes the finest Idlis. Her Idlis are something else entirely. When she calls us over for Idlis, I am almost tempted to skip a meal or three in anticipation. She probably got the recipe from her mother-in-law, who stayed in Chennai for a better part of her life and was a legendary cook herself.
When I had quite perfected the art of making a decent sourdough loaf, my attention turned to Idlis. To me, this was the next culinary bastion to be conquered. I started doing my research. I spoke to many people who made good Idlis including of course, my aunt. I scoured the internet for recipes and methods. I even tried reading up about the science of Idlis.
The variation in the proportion of Urad Dal (Split and Skinned Black Gram) to rice was so dramatically different from person to person that I was at a loss as to whom I should follow. I decided to use my aunt, Rita's 1:2.5 proportion. For every cup of Urad Dal, it was 2.5 cups of rice. This was a hugely successful recipe, so why bother experimenting, I thought?
The quality of the ingredients is very important. Only whole Urad Dal is to be used. The rice is also called Idli Rice and is a form of parboiled rice. Both these ingredients are available in most supermarkets. While there seems to be less variation in Urad Dal the Idli Rice is another story altogether. Different shops have different qualities and you will need to try out a few before you finalise which one you will use and stick to it. Unfortunately, experimenting is the only way, here. In Hyderabad, where I stay, Ratnadeep stocks a decent Idli Rice and so does the P Store in my apartment complex.
Wet grinders give the best results for grinding for Idli. While theoretically you could use a regular mixer-grinder, the results are very disappointing.
One more trick which many people use these days is to put 1 tablespoon of soaked methi seeds (fenugreek) in the grinder before grinding the Urad Dal. Yet anther trick is to put a handful of white rice cooked the previous day of grinding into the grinder while grinding the Idli Rice or to grind a handful of poha (puffed, flattened rice), mix it in water quickly and pour the resultant paste into the grinder while grinding the Idli Rice.
The final trick is to NOT mix the fermented batter. This was a big mistake I was doing until I read about it on the internet here. The key is to mix salt after mixing both the ground Urad Dal and Idli Rice and then allowing it to ferment to not necessitate mixing the batter at all after the process. Simply put a spoon and take small portions of the fermented batter from top and put in the Idli Plate that goes into the Idli steamer. Keep taking such portions right down till the end. Never mix. This, honestly, is the game changer. I had tried the entire recipe as explained above for months. I got Idlis that were good but nowhere close to my aunt's. With this step, things went up several notches.
Try to finish off the Idli batter in a couple of days. Every time you keep it in the fridge, the quality of the Idlis will deteriorate a little.
Here's the full recipe:
1 cup whole urad dal
2.5 cups Idli rice
1 tablespoon methi seeds
1/2 cup poha
Salt to taste
1. Wash the urad dal couple of times and soak in plenty of water (at least double the quantity). Wash the Idli rice 3-4 times and soak in water. Soak the methi seeds. Soak all this overnight.
2. Start wet grinder and pour the methi along with the water. Grind for 4-5 minutes. Then while the ground methi is in the grinder, start the grinder again. Drain the Urad Dal and put into the grinder slowly. Add small quantities of water (few table spoons every time) to ensure that the batter does not become thin. It should be like a thin paste. Too much water can mess up the Idlis. My experience is about 1 cup of water over the entire process but you should experiment with this to get the quantity right. Grind for about 30 minutes.
3. Remove the ground urad dal and then put the Idli rice into the grinder after starting it. Quickly grind the poha, mix with the water and immediately put it into the grinder. Allowing it to stand will cause the whole thing to become very gelatinous. Grind for about 6-7 minutes only.
4. Remove the ground Idli rice and mix with the ground urad dal. Add salt to taste.
5. Allow to ferment. 12-24 hours depending on the ambient temperature.
6. Do not mix the fermented batter. Take a wet muslin cloth and place on the idli plate. Scoop out the batter, one by one and put it on the cloth. Steam for 7 minutes.
7. Serve with ghee, various chutneys, karam podi and sambar.