Idli are one of my favourite foods in the whole world, which is a big claim, for something so simple. These little fermented rice cakes can be found easily in the south of India and we eat them in Malaysia too, we even found them in the Little India of Singapore. But what are idli or what is idli? This post is about idli, where to find them, how to make them, how to serve them, eat them and what to serve them with.
I first ate idli over 20 years ago while backpacking around India with my now wife. We were a young couple, I was a young chef. Since then we married, had a family, I became an executive chef and then, we decided to travel around the world for seven years, of course, we were on the hunt for food. Idli made a lasting impression on us so we were thrilled to find southern Indian food much closer to home in Malaysia and Singapore. We even made a pilgrimage to the “best idli shop in the world” in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. There are many fantastic dishes that are native to the south of India and south Indian food in Malaysia is particularly easy to find.
Other dishes to try include vada and dosa, plus the wonderful curries that are generally served with these starch dishes. Southern Indian food is often light and vegetarian, reflecting the climate and the food plants that grow in the tropics. Expect curry leaf and moringa pods (drumsticks or the super-food tree) that we grow in our tropical garden at home today. The tastes of Asia most certainly came home with us in a big way.
How to Eat Idli
You should eat idli with your fingers. This is very common in southern India and Sri Lanka and my kids call it “smooshing”. They are expert smooshers. Eating Indian food like this is supposed to enhance the experience through the texture sensations and touch. You “smoosh” the idli into the various curries and coconut chutney and place it in your mouth. You will see Indians using their whole hands to expertly do this. In restaurants that serve food like this you’ll find a sink and soap at the back of the restaurant. Diners wash their hands before and after eating.
You can serve idli and curry on a banana leaf, that is the traditional way, but if you don’t have a banana tree in your back garden (we do!) you can buy stainless steel thali trays or plates, like this. They have little pockets to keep your various curries separate. You can see one in the photos, along with the traditional way of serving idli, on a banana leaf.
Of course, you can ask for a fork or spoon if you prefer. Nobody will mind.
When to Eat Idli?
You’ll normally have idli for breakfast. Some restaurants only prepare idly at breakfast time and if you come late, they’ll be gone. But I’d personally eat them at any time of day.
What To Serve With Idli
This varies, but the two accompanyments that seem to be absolutely essential are
- fresh coconut chutney
- sambar (sabhar), a thin, soupy vegetable curry with a few lentils.
To make the coconut chutney you need fresh coconut and a device with which to shred it. That’s going to be hard for most of us at home, but it’s so delicious, it’s worth it. Alternatively, you can buy it ready-made in a jar.
Sambar is easy to make at home, you can even buy sambar mix here. Drumsticks aren’t essential, but if you have a moringa tree, go for it! Two ingredients I would strongly suggest adding are fresh curry leaf and popped black mustard seeds. These really make the dish. You can also buy a ready-made sambar spice blend.
How To Make Idli
Idli are fermented rice and lentil cakes. The batter is cooked in a steamer to make light, fluffy, slightly sour clouds. Rice has to be ground to make idli batter, if you’d rather not go through that process, you can use idli rava or rice rava. The lentil is urad dal, black dal with the husk removed. The batter contains about one part dal to four parts rice.
Fermentation is all the rage these days because it improves the nutritional value of food and makes it easier to digest. Those clever Indians have been doing it for centuries! First you soak the rice and lentils, then you blend it, then ferment it. Fermentation relies on yeast and salt and for the microorganisms to flourish, your salt must be non-iodised. I prefer to use pink Himalayan salt, never table salt. Some things take on a pinkish colour. The yeasts are natural on the surface of most foods and your hands.
The dal should be fresh or your idli may be a bit yellow. Your batter should be a thick pouring consistency and will be full of bubbles produced during fermentation. You’ll need to keep it warm for adequate fermentation, maybe in a very low oven or even a yoghurt maker. We can leave it on the counter here in the tropics, covered in muslin to keep the flies out. Fermentation just takes 8-12 hours.
Another hazard with fermenting is chlorine. Chlorine kills your microorganisms (yeasts), so filter your tap water and leave it to stand.
You’re then going to steam your idli and for that you need an idli plate or steamer to make the correct idli shape. I’ve tried using cups and egg poachers, but just get an idli plate.
Is it Idly or Idli?
Well, I’ve always known them as idly after seeing them on translated restaurant menus in India. However, they are commonly called idli. I think both is OK, I’m not sure, spellings often vary when languages are translated and dishes served in different countries. Just enjoy them, don’t worry about spelling!
Thanks for being interested in idli, now you know what they are, head back to our main food and travel blog directory to discover more global cuisines and dishes.