When we moved from California to Hawaii nearly 20 years ago, I lost one of my favorite foods. Sadly I missed idli, the tender, savory cakes prized for breakfast in South India. I was hooked when I first tasted them in California at an authentic restaurant near Berkeley University. The light texture and mild, sourdough flavor of idli was sensational paired with spicy sambar soup.
Because we don’t have any Indian restaurants where we live now and ordering a stale package mix from the mainland is out of the question, I’ve learned how to make them at home. Little did I know how divergent the recipes would be when first I consulted my Indian cookbooks and the Internet. If your kitchen is in South India, your grandmother may have already taught you the ropes. However, for the rest of us, I like to think I’ve done the legwork for you and made an otherwise confusing task easy.
Some of the recipes I saw said never to use basmati rice, and others used it exclusively. In fact, recipes abound touting varied combinations of rice, including short grain, long grain, par-boiled, flaked, flattened, beaten, and even cream of rice cereal. Then there are two camps on urad dal, the other essential ingredient. In some circles, the black skins of urad dal are left on, and others prefer peeled white dal. As the saying goes, it’s enough to make your head spin.
Thus, I just had to dive in and give it my best shot. In the end, I found I could make fabulous, light-textured idli that remind me of the ones I first had in Berkeley. The part that really thrills me is they are entirely whole food. For me, that’s always the ultimate win. Don’t you just love it when the best tasting dish is also the healthiest?
The right equipment, including an idli tray or tabakh, will ensure your dumplings have a classic, round dome shape. I love my idli liners because they make removal a breeze. However, they are optional. You can still make idli if all you have is a steaming tray and paper cupcake liners. Thus, you can try these incredible spongy cakes and decide if you want to invest in the right equipment to make them perfect. My bet is a tabakh will end up on your wish list.
You do need a large deep pot with a lid and a high powered blender. Thankfully, modern times have made strong, efficient mixers available worldwide. I find my Vitamix replaces the traditional method of stone grinding just fine. It’s not even necessary to soak dal and rice separately, as is the old way. The dal and rice process together beautifully in the blender, making an ideal smooth batter with a touch of fine rice remaining.
I do keep tradition by adding fenugreek seeds, as many Indian cooks recommend. This is said to encourage fermentation. Plus, I found one other simple choice that works like a magic wand to create frothy sourdough. I mix Himalayan pink salt and a pinch of baking soda into the batter before fermenting. This way, the sourdough doesn’t lose its loft from stirring in ingredients at the end. Instead, the mixture keeps all it’s bubbles when spooned gently into idli molds.
I know I still have much to learn. I am eager to know what favorite accompaniments aficionados enjoy with idlis. If you are one, please let me know in the comments below. I’m sure I’ve broken a few rules by eating my nutritious morning idli with sauteed greens, crunchy seeds, and salsa. Heck, I even have to confess I’ve eaten these moist darlings toasted, with peanut butter and jam.
Are you less adventurous in combining food? To play it safe, I’ll give you a solid recommendation. Here is a recipe for my Sambar Spiced Indian Lentil Soup. After all, it is the most popular pairing in the world for idli, adored in South Indian breakfasts.
Tender Whole Food Steamed Idli
- 1 cup brown basmati rice
- 1/2 cup white urad dal
- 1/4 tsp. whole fenugreek seed
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. Himalayan salt
- 1 TB water to dissolve baking soda and salt
- Rinse dal and rice together 3 times. Soak dal, rice and fenugreek together for 4 hours at room temperature or overnight in fridge. Drain and shake well but don't rinse.
- Place the soaked dal, rice, fenugreek seed and 1 cup water in a high powered blender. A Vitamix works beautifully. Blend on high as long as it takes to make a batter. Mixture will be thick and a tamper is helpful. It's ok if batter becomes slightly warm. However, if mixture warms to bath water temperature stop blending. Test batter by rubbing between two fingers. Ideally batter will be mostly smooth with a little fine grit remaining.
- Pour idli batter in a nonreactive bowl leaving room for expansion.
- Dissolve salt and baking soda in 1 tablespoon of water. Stir into idli batter. Clean sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Cover bowl with a plate and let ferment at room temperature. Look for the batter to puff up and have thin cracks, or tiny bubbles at surface. This takes about 12 hours in a tropical climate, or up to 36 hours in a cool climate. You want the batter to sour slightly but still taste light and pleasant.
- Once the batter has desired degree of sourness and is bubbly, it's ready to cook. You can store batter in the refrigerator up to 2 days before cooking. After that it becomes increasingly sour. Allow chilled batter to warm to room temperature before cooking.
- When you are ready to steam idli, check consistency of batter by stirring gently. Batter should be nice and fluffy and pour easily off a large spoon. If batter is too thick, stir in a tablespoon of water. If batter is too runny, finished idli will be sticky. You can add a tiny bit of rice flour if necessary, but go easy.
- Fill a large deep pot with one to two inches of water. Cover with a lid and bring water to a gentle boil.
- Prepare tabakh (idli tray) by lightly greasing indentations or lining with silicone liners. You can also use a cotton handkerchief to line your trays. Just cut a hole in center of each handkerchief to position on trays before filling and stacking. You can wash and reuse your handkerchiefs.
- Fill each well with batter. Don't over-fill if cooking in a stacked tier or idli tops will be dented. Place filled idli molds in pot with gently boiling water. Place lid on pot. Steam idli until risen and set. Surface of idli will be firm to light touch. Three inch idli take about 12 minutes. Adjust time for smaller or larger idli.
- Take idli tray from steamer and let cool. Removal is easier if you wait to take dumplings out of molds.