Idli are south Indian savoury rice cakes, often served at breakfast, but also eaten as a snack or in place of rice in a lighter meal.
They are made by steaming a fermented batter of rice and lentils. The white spongy cakes are generally served with sambar, curries, and other sauces, as shown in the picture above. They can be dipped into these sauces, sprinkled with spices, or eaten alone. Rice dishes are served across India, but idli are a typically southern Indian food.
Idli are simple to make, although the fermenting process for the batter can be long. Yes, you can buy instant idli batter mix to which you just add water, and ferment. You could also buy ready-made batter from good Indian grocers, which tastes better. Or, to paraphrase an Indian colleague of mine, “three hundred million Indian mothers can’t be wrong, so make it yourself, like they do.”
The fermenting process creates the slightly sour taste and can take time – at least overnight, in a warm place. Our recipe for idli batter can be found here. The batter should be thick and creamy, but will pour off a spoon.
We eat idli for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Idli, with a simple sambar or dal, with a good coconut chutney makes a really healthy and simple meal.
There are many, many variations of idli. Mini or large idlis can be soaked in sambar or stuffed with a masala vegetable filling. Rava idli uses semolina instead of rice as a base for the batter. Malli idli is a dish in which idlis are fried with coriander and curry leaves. No matter what variation, they are generally served with a wet dish such as sambar so you can dip them into it. They are usually served with a chutney, or sometimes just ghee. It is common to stir a half teaspoon of ajwain or cumin seeds into the batter before fermenting.
Idli are gluten-free.
The steaming process is believed to have been brought to India between 800 and 1200 CE from Indonesia. Indonesia is also known for the use of fermented foods in their cuisine.
The recipe below uses a pressure cooker, but the idli can just as easily be steamed. If you do not have idli trays, small ramekins would be suitable, provided you grease them lightly.
If you need to make idli batter, then this recipe should be started the day before.
- 4 cups idli batter - (see recipe)
- Bring 500ml of water to a rolling boil in the pressure cooker.
- Pour the batter in the idli moulds and place moulds into the pressure cooker. Seal pressure cooker, and cook on low heat for 12 minutes.
- When cooked, release pressure quickly and remove idli from moulds. They should not stick because of the steaming process. Serve immediately.
- If you do not have idli batter to hand, this recipe must be started the day before with the preparation of the batter.