It is impossible to over-state the importance of rice to many of the cuisines of India- in several Indian languages, the word for "rice" (annam) is the same as the word for "food". Plain boiled rice invariably accompanies simple home-style meals. For other times, one can choose from an infinite variety of flavored rice, fried rice and layered rice dishes. The uses of rice hardly end there. There is rice flour which is used to prepare pancakes, sweet and savory snacks, and desserts. There is crunchy featherweight puffed rice (kurmura) which makes its way into tea-time snacks and street foods. Then there is the flattened rice (poha) which is my favorite breakfast ever.
Rice by itself can perform miracles, and it is no less magical in combination with other ingredients. One successful pairing that always yields delicious results is the alliance of rice with urad dal. A batter of these two ingredients, often fermented (using wild yeast) to a frothy mass, is delicious in endless forms- as fluffy steamed idli, crispy melt-in-the-mouth dosa, the sturdier adai, spongy uttapams and adorable little appams or paniyarams (with infinite variations of each dish).
I am particularly enamored by idlis. Many people I know (including a certain someone I live with) grew up eating idlis day in and day out for breakfast, and had endless idlis packed into their lunchboxes, and what with familiarity breeding contempt and all that, they don't like idlis any more. What can I say? More for me!! :D Idlis can be steamed in large batches, are nutritious and low in fat, can be refrigerated or frozen well, and resurrected to steamy perfection in a matter of seconds in the microwave. What's not to love? Plenty, as it turns out. Idlis fall into that category of foods (like bread) that call for only 2-3 ingredients and a simple-sounding recipe, but that can take a lifetime to perfect. Read Ammani's hilarious love-hate idli musings here.
Idli recipes that I have come across are more or less the same- a proportion of 1-3 cups rice to 1 cup urad dal, soaked and ground together into a fine batter, then fermented overnight, poured into molds and steamed to perfection. The rice can be bought pre-ground in the form of idli rava and this is how I have always been making my B- grade idlis. Consistently edible. Nothing to write home about. Resolutely average. Well, I am now ready for A+ idlis and this is the first variation I tried- using regular whole rice instead of the idli rice to see if it makes a difference (not much). I also made flavored idlis instead of plain ones: these are Kanchipuram idlis, containing an irresistable blend of cumin, peppercorns, curry leaves and, not shown in the picture, some ginger and asafoetida. The traditional way to prepare these idlis is to steam them in special cup-shaped molds, but I had to make do with my regular idli steamer. For great traditional recipes for this idli, see posts by Inbavalli and Srivalli.
Kanchipuram Idli(adapted from Chandra Padmanabhan's Dakshin, yielded 16 medium idlis and 6 medium uttapams)
1. Soak 1.5 C raw rice and 1 C urad dal separately in water for 2-3 hours. Drain off the water and grind each of these to a batter, adding some water only if necessary. Mix the two batters and let the whole thing ferment for 8-24 hours (8 hours is all I needed in this warm weather).
2. Meanwhile, heat 2 t untoasted sesame oil (gingelly oil) in a small pan and add 0.25 t asafoetida, 10-12 whole black peppercorns, 2 t cumin seeds, 1 t minced ginger and 10-15 curry leaves. Saute until spices are fragrant. Grind the mixture together to a coarse powder.
3. Once the batter is fermented, stir in (gently!) 4 T untoasted sesame oil and the spice mixture. Add salt to taste. Make idlis in a steamer.
I served the idlis with some cauliflower sambar:
The rest of the batter was saved onvernight for delicious uttapams the next morning:
These idlis tasted delicious, but I still have a long way to go. My efforts to make a soft melt-in-the-mouth idli shall continue! Two contraints that my idlis are presently faced with are:
1. The use of regular sona masuri rice in place of parboiled rice that is traditionally used to make idli.
2. The use of a food processor to make the batter, instead of a heavy-duty grinder. I suspect that the food processor fails to grind the batter as finely as it ought to be ground.
I don't foresee buying a bulky and expensive grinder any time in the near future, but I will buy some parboiled rice soon. Actually, the only reason why I have not bought parboiled rice yet is that I cannot buy "some" of it; I have to buy it in huge 10 lb sacks because that is the smallest unit that is sold in our international store. This will last me a whole life-time and the next couple as well! But I recently learned that parboiled rice retains a lot of nutrition because of the way it is made, and is nutritionally closer to brown rice than to white rice. I will be buying it soon!
My attempts to buy rosematta rice (Kerala red rice) at this very same international market have been completely futile and a little hilarious. I asked an employee if the store carried rosematta rice and explained that it is a red rice from India. He patiently led me to the Mexican aisle and pointed out a pack of "red beans and rice". I shook my head and tried to ask again. This time, he took me to the Italian aisle and pointed to "risotto rice" and was exasperated when I dejectedly shook my head again. How could I explain that just because "rosematta" and "risotto" have a couple of syllables in common, does not make them substitutes for each other? The store does carry Sri Lankan samba rice labeled as red rice, but this one is sold as a 20 lb sack! Anyway, I know I can buy rosematta rice online, but am not too thrilled with the prospect of paying all those shipping charges for a heavy commodity like rice.
Rice as my comfort food of choice...
Three typical Marathi rice dishes...
Three rice dishes to feed (and please) a crowd...
Three dishes exploring rice in other cuisines...
"Chinese" Fried Rice
If experienced idli chefs have any magical tricks for making perfect idlis, please please please leave a comment! For an extraordinary array of rice dishes, visit Sharmi's gorgeous round-up.