Weekend Brunch: Idlis, Podi with oil, Shallot Sambar, Coconut-Coriander Chutney
Wherever we have lived, cold or warm, getting idli batter to rise has never been a problem. In kitchens with electric ranges, putting the light on and closing the oven door ensured fermented batter. In our previous home with a gas oven, the weather was kind to us.
In the city where we live right now, in our temporary accommodation, we had an electric oven. The light made it toasty inside, helping the batter ferment well even in freezing weather. However, this “overnight” theory – as in keep the batter to ferment in the evening and have it rise three or four times in volume overnight – works only with a wet grinder, which incorporates plenty of air into the batter.
We use our ordinary 500 watt mixer. Our batter has always taken 12-16 hours to ferment, sometimes 24.
In this house, however, it’s a different story. On the coldest winter day, the Yeast Goddess has been kind to us when it comes to bread. With the wild yeast in idli, however, it’s a different result.
In our gas oven, keeping the light on at night does nothing, besides wasting electricity. It is very very frustrating to hear the familiar advice: “Keep the oven light on to ferment idli batter”. It does not often work in gas ovens. We’ve had two gas ovens so far. Putting. the. oven. light. on. does. not. always. help. It drives us nuts when we repeatedly read this advice as if it is the gospel, without finding out what kind of oven the advice seeker has. It may work if your batter has been ground with a wet grinder, but not if it has been ground in a mixer or blender.
Switching on the oven and turning it off, then hoping for the batter to ferment does nothing either. Atleast in this house. Well it does, but it’s more complicated than that. Read on for details.
These new combo ranges with a gas cook top and electric oven are pricey, but really worthwhile and super-efficient. Next time, we’ll probably get one of those. Or turn the oven light on and keep our palms in front of it to test the heat emitted before placing an order.
Except for a couple of months in summer, fermented idli batter is a thing of our dreams. That doesn’t stop us from making soft, fluffy idlis. The secret is Eno Fruit Salt. Crushed up Alka Seltzer Original is a decent substitute.
These antacids are a mixture of citric acid and baking soda – a combo that helps make the batter light and foamy, when added just before steaming.
So if it’s easy to make idlis with Eno why attempt to ferment the batter at all? We do, ‘cos it develops flavour, just like keeping bread to rise over two or three cycles.
Yes, we’ve tried everything listed by Hemant Trivedi here.
We found that the addition of yeast makes it rise, but the taste of yeast in idli feels just wrong. You’ll wonder why we don’t just go out and buy a plate of idlis. Well, where we lived earlier, there was one Udupi restaurant and several others that served decent idlis, a mile from our home. Where we are now, a good idli is several hundred miles away.
In our last attempt, the batter fermented. It took 16 hours, but it did – the natural way, without Eno or any other additives.
Here’s what we did.
At 7 p.m., we preheated the oven at 200F for 10 minutes and switched it off. At midnight, we took the batter out, reheated the oven and put it back. Repeat at 7 a.m. Heating the oven thrice got us well-risen batter after 16 hours.
We know there are many of you out there whose idli batter never ferments no matter what you do. We know you want to wipe the smirks off those who tell you, “Turn the oven light on”, when you’ve just told them you’ve tried that already. Just add Eno to your idlis and don’t tell the Idli Police that you did.
We make whole-grain idlis using brown and red rices. What’s the difference?
Brown rice is unmilled, has only the husk removed, and retains 100% of the bran. Red rice is semi-milled, with the husk and some of the bran removed. White rice is milled and polished to remove the husk and all the bran. Unlike white rices, brown/red rices are high in fibre, have a wonderful array of nutrients, and possess properties that help control blood lipids, and blood sugar levels.
We use a combination of short-grained brown rice and parboilied red – Rose Matta rice. We use the proportion of 2.5:1 rice to urad dal. Increasing the proportion of Rose Matta rice makes the idlis sticky. Rose Matta is available in Indian grocery stores. Any parboiled rice will work.
Do check out what this site has to say about the science behind fermentation by wild yeast. Many of the same rules apply to yeast used for bread-baking as well.
If you live in a place where getting the batter to ferment is a real problem, this process may help. If you have no problem getting idli batter to ferment, these instructions may sound amusing.
Whole Grain Idlis
3/4 cup brown rice (short-grain is good, but long-grain will work)
1/2 cup parboiled red/brown rice (like Rose Matta)
1/2 cup urad dal (the skinned but whole variety – see pic below)
2 tablespoons cooked rice /poha/ a small piece of bread soaked in a teaspoon of water
8-10 fenugreek (methi) seeds
Tips and Method
1. Wash and soak the rices in distilled/filtered water. Yeast hates chlorine. Urad dal retains more wild yeast unwashed.
2. Soak the rice and dal separately in open wide-mouthed containers, and add a few fenugreek seeds to both. Soak them for 4-8 hours.
3. Grind the urad dal to a smooth paste with a little water. Use chilled water in case the batter starts getting warm. We use our regular mixer. It should be totally smooth and a bit bubbly.
4. Grind the rice to the texture of wet fine semolina. Don’t make the batter very runny.
5. While grinding the rice, add a handful of cooked rice kept out for half an hour, or a piece of bread soaked in a teaspoon of water, preferably kept near a window for half an hour. This gives the yeast some starch to munch on. Make sure you add only enough water to make a thick batter. When you pour it with a spoon or ladle, it should go drip, drip, drip. It should not pour off.
6. Mix the two batters with your hand gently in a folding motion to incorporate air. Add salt and mix. Do this for a few minutes, preferably outside on a porch.
7. Keep the batter out for half an hour, uncovered near places with a lot of bacteria. Near potted plants, or a shoe rack. (Stop rolling your eyes.) It helps attract wild yeast. If you have a green chilli with a blackened stalk, that’s a wild yeast haven. Stick the stalk in the batter.
8. Then cover it well, and keep it in a warm place to ferment. It should not be hot, just warm. Temperatures above 130F will kill the yeast.
9. Start the oven at 200 F for 10 minutes, switch it off and put the covered idli batter in. Do this two of three times during the course of 16 hours. If your oven has a ‘keep warm’ button, try that. Turn the ‘keep warm’ feature on for ten minutes, turn it off and put your batter in.
10. Despite all this, if your batter does not ferment, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of Eno fruit salt (or crushed Alka Seltzer Original) to the batter just before ladling it into the greased idli mould.
11. While mixing the batter before steaming the idlis, be very gentle.
12. Add 2 cups of water to the base of a pressure cooker or idli steamer. Insert the idli mould, cover the container (do not use the whistle). Keep the flame at medium high. Let there be a strong jet of steam, then cook it for another 4 to 5 minutes. Open the lid after all the steam has subsided, and check for doneness with a toothpick. It should come out clean.
13. Leave it in the container for 5 minutes, then scoop out the idlis with a blunt knife.
14. If you have some extra batter, make uttappams, or microwave the batter in a ¾ inch layer for 3 minutes or so until just set. Wait for another two minutes, then unmould and cut into pieces.
Kerala-style Idli Podi
Toast 2/3 cup urad dal until light brown. Add 4 red chillies and 1 tsp black sesame seeds. Toast them for a minute to so, until the sesame seeds start popping. Crush some asafoetida and add a pinch. Let it cool. Grind it to a powder with salt. If you want it hotter, add cayenne powder.
Usually mixed in with a tsp. of light sesame oil while eating.
Check out these Mallige Idlis from Recipe Junction.