I’m always excited to find new international food staples that are naturally gluten free. My first encounter with idli, the traditional south indian snack, was at a South Indian restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike North India, South India bases many traditional dishes on rice and urad dal, even their “breads”- uppatham (vegetable pancakes), dosa (crepes), and idli (steamed rice/dosa cakes).
According to Wikipedia cookbook “Idli is a round, fluffy bread roughly eight centimetres in diameter. Idli is made from ground rice or rice flour mixed with ground urad dal, salt, methi (fenugreek seeds) and water. The mixture is allowed to ferment prior to being steamed in an idli steamer. They are traditional to Southern India and are most often eaten with sambar.”(Wikipedia Cookbook Entry for Idli)
I was ecstatic when I realized that South India had many naturally gluten free offerings. First I tried the buttery, crisp dosa crepes filled with an assortment of fillings like masala potato filling. After my success with the dosa, I tried the other offerings like idli and uppatham. I was so crazy about dosa that I ended up rarely ordering the steamed idli rice cakes, as I found them a bit plain. However, on another message board I’m on I read about stuffed idli with a flavorful filling like tomato chutney steamed inside the disc. I was intrigued, so I gave idli another shot using some premade fermented idli batter from a local indian market in Mountain View, California. I was thrilled to find that these stuffed idli were delicious, especially served with spicy sambar soup and a homemade Cashew Nut Chutney, a mint chutney, or a coconut green chili chutney. It was easy to make the idli using my idli mold* that I had bought at the City Market in Bangalore, India, but you could also use an egg poacher for larger idli. I put the mold with idli batter, Trader Joe’s tomato chutney, and more idli batter covering the filling, into a steamer basket in a large soup pot and steamed the idli for around 12 minutes. Then I carefully placed them on a wire rack to cool and enjoyed these tasty snacks with sambar and chutney. Even DH, who sometimes find Indian food too spicy for his taste, gobbled them up. They were terrific reheated briefly in the microwave as a little snack, too. After having such good success with premade idli batter, and a few experiments with powdered idli batter, I was eager to try making idli from scratch. After consulting an expert on all things fermented on the Yahoo Vegetarian GF board, I set out on my first experiment.
*Note: the dish pictured above may actually be intended for appam, but it works FABULOUSLY for idli if placed in a steamer basket.*
The first time I made the recipe, I soaked the urad dal for the same amount of time as the rice, and it acquired a “beany” fragrance. It wasn’t a bad smell exactly, just a little strong. I went ahead and used it for my recipe and found that the later fermentation covered the smell a bit, and the taste was fine. However, I adjusted the recipe to avoid this issue. After soaking, I achieved a very pleasing texture with the batter using a food processor, although traditionally a Wet Grinder is used to make perfect Idli. However, with my strong Kitchenaid food processor, I was able to achieve the texture of a thick coconut chutney, if that makes sense. I’m relieved, as my former experiment with homemade dosa batter was very chunky- but that was about 8 or more years ago. Basmati doesn’t swell and soften like a short grain, glutinous rice, so next time I will try another rice. Actually, I picked up some Idli rice from our local Indian market after I started my experiment, so next time I may try this recipe using idli rice.
After the idli batter sat out overnight, it was a little gloopy, but didn’t achieve a nice sourdough tinge like pre-made idli batter I’ve bought before… Due to the cooler climate here in the bay area, I let the batter ferment for about two days and eventually it acquired a faint pleasant sourdough aroma. I stirred it fairly regularly. I read in several sources that in climates cooler than the recipe’s native South India, you can turn on the oven light (NOT the oven) and leave the batter in the oven overnight to achieve good fermentation. According to my Australian source in the know, you can also add a dab of kefir or a pinch of yeast and a Â½ teaspoon of yogurt to encourage fermentation if desired. Whatever you do, don’t use chlorinated water to grind your rice and urad dal, and if it gets a little “off” smelling, stir it. It is much like sourdough starter in this way. You can also add 1 tsp of fenugreek seeds to aid fermentation and add flavor. I added a teaspoon of nigella seeds for flavor this time.
For me, the idli itself is only half of the recipe. The chutneys used as filling and accompaniment are equally important, adding flavor and personality. Trader Joe’s tomato chutney is really good, but because it is produced in a factory that also produces wheat products, I’ve been trying to find a recipe to make it from scratch. I haven’t found the perfect recipe, but when I do, I will definitely blog about it. You can search for your own Chutney Recipe, if you like. Let me know if any are especially tasty. Although sometimes I make a cashew chutney, this time I made a Recipe for Peanut Chutney that I found online. It was delicious! Most nuts would probably work for this recipe, if you are allergic to peanuts.
Here are some additional recipes for idli:
A Sampling of South Indian Bread Recipes, with Photos
Carrot Idli Recipe
Spicy Idli Podi Accompaniment
Kerala Red Rice Idli
And if you are craving a sweet steamed rice pastry… try this Kerala ila ada and kozhukkatta Steamed rice sweet recipe from Live to Eat.
*note: rava usually refers to semolina cream of wheat, so be careful when ordering dosa or idli, or using “Rava” that it is not made of wheat.
Pushpas Idli or Dosa Batter
1 cup of Raw Rice (I used the non-traditional basmati)
3/4 cup of urad dal
Chlorine Free water (enough to make a rather thick batter)
Tomato chutney for filling
Soak rice and seasonings (not including salt) in 3 cups of water for about eight hours and soak urad dal separately in 1 and half cup of water for about four hours. throw away the water in which rice and urad dal was soaked. Grind urad dal to make a thick paste with your chlorine free water, adding a little at a time. Add rice and grind again till both are mixed. The consistency should be similar to prepared idli batter found at your local Indian market. Add your salt, to taste. Keep the batter outside the refrigerator for 8 hours (or more if in cool climate). If it is cold, turn on the light to your oven and put the batter in the oven. If the batter starts to smell unpleasant, stir it. If needed, once it has fermented you can refrigerate the batter and use it as needed. Bring to room temperature before using.
To prepare your idli, spray an idli mold or egg poacher with non-stick cooking spray and fill it half full with batter. Then put a small amount of the chutney in the center of the batter. Cover the filling with batter. Then place the idli mold into your steamer and steam for 10-15 minutes, or until center is firm. Carefully cut around the idli with a sharp knife and remove to a wire rack to cool. Eat while warm or heat in microwave for 10 seconds when cold. You can freeze them or refrigerate with good results.