I dont know if this is some elaborate joke but since my friends RU Srinivas and Baradwaj Rangan have tweeted about it, I assume it is true. RU is after all the idly king who runs the Idli Factory that has jazzed up our plain white food item considerably. Even if it were a joke, I don’t mind if the laugh is on me, for the idli (I will not spell it as Idly) is one of my favourite dishes and so I really am happy it has a day for it. Of course, in Tamil Nadu, everyday is Idli Day in many households. There is something so simple about it that it fascinates me. Of course, I have no idea as to how the batter is prepared but then once given that ingredient, I know how to manage the rest – complete with small details like adding a drop of oil to the bottom of each bowl on the idli stand before you pour in the batter so that the steamed idli does not stick to the sides.
There are idlis and idlis. Of course I look upon the Kanchipuram variety to be an interloper though I agree it has a taste of its own. A couple of years ago, while we were on a heritage tour of Kanchi, Sarada organised for this variety to be supplied from the madapali of the Varadaraja Temple and it was outstanding. The rava idli is a travesty. But let me not get distracted. For the nonce I will focus on the standard white idli.
There is a theory that its etymology is from ittu aLi in Tamil – to steam/cook and serve. There is also a theory that we learnt it from Indonesians. However it is in Kannada literature that the earliest references can be found, from around the 10th century. But I am no food historian and so I will leave it there. In Tamil Nadu, it appears to be of later provenance than the dosai (let us NOT refer to it as the Indian pancake for that latter dish from the US is something I cannot stand), which, so the cognoscenti tell me, is mentioned even in sangam poetry. I do not know about that, but I can vouch for the fact that both Purandara Dasa and Annamayya do mention dosa and its variants but the idli has for some reason not been exalted in a song. I may be wrong there again.
I am not going to lament the passing of the grinding stone in which the idli batter was made. That elegy is invariably by Mamas who never had to grind idli batter. Neither have I for that matter but I think modern technology has eliminated one labour consuming primitive device. We still have one in our house and by some strange process of anti-gravity it travelled upstairs each time we added a floor. Thus when the first floor was built it made its way to the terrace on the second floor. And there it lay, seemingly idle, till one day I found it phenomenally useful. Coming back from a late night dinner I found everyone so sound asleep that no matter how many times I rang the door bell, nobody came to let me in. Realising that the door to the stairs was open, I got on to the terrace, picked up the roller of the grinder and dropped it with a thud three times on the terrace floor, roughly above the spot where my parents’ bedroom was. That noise woke up everyone and soon had them swarming to the front door.
In our ancestral home in Mylapore, the grinding stone was square in shape and permanently fixed in a cavity in the ground. In sharp contrast, the one of the terrace has travelled quite a bit. From Madras it moved to Calcutta, from there to Guwahati, back to Calcutta and now in Chennai. Not so peripatetic has been my grandmother’s idli thattu – a giant wheel that can make six idlis at a time, which came with its own special cover. The batter was never poured direct into the cups but on a fine cloth that covered the entire plate. The idlis were therefore lifted off the cloth. The base for this, which had the water, was a huge iron wok. God knows what was the speed of steaming the idlis. Considering that families then were not less than 30 in strength, how did they churn them out in time for breakfast or tiffin? One way out was to prepare them in advance, apply chilli powder and oil on them and serve everyone. This podi idli also made for a lovely travel breakfast.
Among the best idlis I have had is a small eatery in Trichy, off Ammmamandapam. I dont know its name. This was when I was seven or so and we had all bathed, around forty of us, uncles, aunts, cousins, in the Cauvery. We were so ravenous that we descended on this place and hogged. I can never forget its taste. I am no fan of Murugan Idli Kadai but I strongly recommend the idlis at New Prakash Bhawan, NSC Bose Road. Among towns, I think it is Madurai that is best in idlis. In sharp contrast I can name several places where I have had the worst idlis, and the includes many places in North India and IRCTC canteens. The question arises as to why I had idlis in the north and to that my answer is that these were invariably at homes of hosts who greeted me with O because you are Madrosy we thought we must make idli and sombre for you.
I have never had the thattu idli – which is around 6 in in diameter. It appears to be closely related to the famed stand idlis in MS Subbulakshmi’s Kalki Gardens of which I have only read. There are at least two great stories concerning Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and his love for idlis but I will save them up for another day. One can be read here though. Among festivals, it is Vinayaka Chaturthi that is associated most with idlis for these are offered along with the modakams. However these idlis are I think made of raw and not par-boiled rice.
And so, here is to the idli. Long may it rule over us.
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