Like I've mentioned, my South Indian spice mistress credentials should be seriously questioned. It's pretty embarrassing...I can make any number of North Indian dishes and make them well but when it comes to the most traditional fare from my home region...well let's just say that I've always been a bit scared to try some of the more complicated dishes. Case in point: idlis. These steamed rice and lentil cakes are typical breakfast fare throughout South India, and it was no different in our household growing up. I can also recall childhood trips to Chennai (it was still called Madras back then), where every morning at my uncle and aunt's dining table would begin with idli after idli, served with sambhar (lentil and vegetable stew), any manner of delicious chutneys and molaga podi, which is a ground chili and lentil powder that you mix with oil to accompany idli, dosa and other breakfast items. Idlis with chutneys and molaga podi were also wrapped in banana leaves to take on train journeys, making for a wonderful little package to open and enjoy.
When we went to India to get married a couple of years ago, idlis were among my husband Luis's favorite foods. So much so that he insisted that we buy idli plates upon our return to Paris, where we found them for sale in a Sri Lankan store. All this time though, they were sitting in a box, tucked away by my fear of idli making. You see, the traditional idlis are made by soaking and grinding urad dal (the inside part of black gram lentils) and rice separately and then mixing them together and letting the mixture ferment overnight. It just seemed like too much work, far more than my busy life could accommodate. This combined with my apprehension of messing them up big time meant that idli consumption was relegated to visits back home or restaurant outings, or at the very best for an eventual attempt using instant idli mix.
Then enter the lovely Hetal & Anuja of Show Me The Curry, who have a super easy recipe and video for idlis made with rava (known as sooji in Hindi and semolina in English) on their website. Rava/sooji/ semolina is basically coarse, purified wheat middlings and can easily be found in both Indian shops as well as places like Whole Foods Market in the U.S. or can be substituted with Cream of Wheat. Rava was one of the first things that I bought in the the Indian shops upon moving to Bangkok, given my love for upma, the rava-based South Indian comfort food which is one of my favorites. I knew that rava could be used for idlis, but didn't realize how easy it was until checking out Hetal & Anuja's video. No soaking, grinding or fermenting involved!
This recipe, like most on the Show Me The Curry site, came out very well! I followed it exactly as written and got 16 idlis, which I had to make in two batches since our little idli plate set has only two trays. We luckily happened to have some Eno Fruit Salt, which is Hetal & Anuja's magical ingredient to make the idli batter foam up and forego the fermenting process, on hand. Eno Fruit Salt is basically an antacid made up of baking soda and citric acid. It seemed bizarre to use it in cooking, but it worked like a charm! The idlis came out soft, but with a coarser texture than traditional idlis give the use of the rava. I also loved Hetal & Anuja's suggestion of placing some coriander and tomato in the bottom of the idli plates for garnish...such a cute touch! All in all, I felt so proud of myself for finally having made some kind of idlis and coming closer to earning my South Indian culinary stripes :-) Served with some red bell pepper chutney, mint and cashew chutney (recipe coming soon) and some yogurt, this was the perfect brunch!
Makes 16-20 idlis (depending on the size of your idli plates)
Recipe by Hetal & Anuja, Show Me The Curry
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
Pinch of asofoetida (hing)
1 dried red chili
1 teaspoon chana dal
1 teaspoon urad dal
1 tablespoon broken cashew pieces
2 cups rava/sooji/semolina
1 cup plain yogurt
1 sprig curry leaves
1-2 green chilies, chopped (I used 1 Thai bird's eye chili instead)
5 sprigs fresh coriander, chopped
1-2 teaspoons grated ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 teaspoons Eno Fruit Salt
Thinly sliced tomatoes and fresh coriander, for garnish (optional)
1. Heat a large pan over medium heat with the oil. Once it is warm, add the mustard seeds.
2. Once they begin to pop, add the asofoetida (hing), dried red chile, dals and cashews. Mix and cook until the dals begin to turn golden.
3. Stir in the rava/sooji/semolina and mix well. Roast/toast the mixture until it becomes fragrant and begins to turn ever so slightly golden. Make sure that you don't burn it!
4. Once done, place the mixture in a large bowl and set aside to allow it to cool down for about 10 minutes.
5. In another (smaller) bowl, mix together all of the remaining ingredients except for the Eno Fruit Salt, water and the garnish ingredients. Mix well.
6. Pour the yogurt mixture into the rava/sooji/semolina mixture. Mix well and then begin to add the water a little at a time, stirring well after each addition. Mix until you get all of the lumps out of the mixture. Set aside for 15-20 minutes.
7. In the meanwhile, lightly oil your idli trays and place the fresh coriander sprigs and tomato slices onto them for garnish, if using. Layer the trays such that you overlap the holes in the trays with the idli wells in order to aid the steaming process.
8. Bring water to boil in your idli steamer or pot.
9. After the rava/sooji/semolina mixture has rested for 15-20 minutes, stir in the Eno Fruit salt. Immediately pour the mixture into your idli trays and place into the steamer/pot.
10. Cook the idlis for 15-16 minutes and then demold them onto a plate.