From Academic Kids

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Traditional plain Idlis

Idli is a food native to southern India, common in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. It is most often eaten at breakfast or as a snack. The traditional idli is a small, round patty of batter made of rice and lentils (specifically urad dal) and steamed. The 2"-3" diameter idli is usually served in pairs with chutney, sambar, or other condiments such as dry, crushed spice mixtures. The latter, Milagai Podi, may contain ground chilies, spices, seeds and lentils, and is useful if the idlis are to be eaten later away from home. Dipping in oil can prevent more souring of the idlis in the day's heat, and helps the dry seasonings to stick. Plain idlis may have little more than salt as seasoning, but there are many variations in ingredients. Some contemporary versions contain neither rice nor urad dal, but the finished product is still recognizably an idli.

To prepare the classic idlis, two parts uncooked rice to one part split urad dal are soaked until they can be ground to a paste in a heavy grinding stone vessel, the attu kal. This paste is allowed to ferment overnight, until about 2-1/2 times its original volume. In the morning, the idli batter is put into the ghee-greased molds of an idli tray or "tree" for steaming. This typically has several metal trays in tiers on a central support, with three or four round indentations per tray. These molds are perforated to allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done, in 10-25 minutes, depending on size.

The idli's pancake-like cousin is the dosa.


Although the precise history of the modern idli is unknown, it is a very old food in southern Indian cuisine. The first mention of it in writings occurs ca. 920 A.D., and it seems to have started as a dish made only of fermented urad dal. One description ca. 1025 says the lentils were first soaked in buttermilk, and after grinding, seasoned with pepper, coriander, cumin and asafoetida. The king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, the Manasollasa, written in Sanskrit ca. 1130 A.D. There is no known record of rice being added until some time in the 17th century. It may have been found that the rice helped speed the fermentation process. Although the idli changed in ingredients, the preparation process and the name remained the same.

Contemporary Idlis and Variations

Southern Indians have brought the popular idli wherever they have settled throughout the world. Cooks have had to solve problems of hard-to-get ingredients, and climates that do not encourage overnight fermentation. One cook noted that idli batter, foaming within a few hours in India, might take several days to rise in Britain. The traditional heavy grindstones used to wet-grind the rice and dal are not easily transported. Access to Indian ingredients before the advent of Internet mail order could be virtually impossible in many places. Chlorinated water and iodized salt interfere with fermentation.

New versions of the somewhat temperamental idli and new cooking equipment have been created to make the labor-intensive preparation much easier, if not bypass it completely. If one wants idlis now, not tomorrow morning, it is possible with an an adapted recipe and a microwave idli steamer to turn out a batch in less than half an hour.

Newer "quick" recipes for the idli can be rice- or wheat-based (rava idli). Parboiled rice, such as Uncle Ben's can reduce the soaking time considerably. Store-bought ground rice is available, or Cream of Rice may be used. Similarly, semolina or Cream of Wheat may be used for rava idli. Yoghurt may be added to provide the sour flavor for unfermented batters. Prepackaged mixes allow for almost instant idlis, for the truly desperate.

Besides the microwave steamer, electric idli steamers are available, with automatic steam release and shut-off for perfect cooking. Both types are non-stick, so a fat-free idli is possible. Table-mounted electric wet-grinders may take the place of floor-bound attu kal. With these appliances, even the classic idlis can be made more easily.

The plain rice/urad dal idli continues to be the popular version, but it may also incorporate a variety of extra ingredients, savory or sweet. Mustard seeds, fresh chilis, black pepper, cumin, coriander seed and its fresh leaf form (cilantro), fenugreek seeds, curry leaves (neem), fresh ginger root, sesame seeds, nuts, garlic, scallions, coconut, and the unrefined sugar jaggery are all possibilities. Filled idlis contain small amounts of chutneys, sambars, or sauces placed inside before steaming.

External Reference

  • Idli preparation (
  • Achaya, K. T. (1994) Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-195-63448-9
  • Devi, Yamuna (1987) Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, Dutton ISBN 0-525-24564-2
  • Jaffrey, Madhur (1988) A Taste of India, Atheneum ISBN 0-689-70726-6
  • Rau, Santha Rama (1969) The Cooking of India, Time-Life Books



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