Sunday, February 3, 2013

Recipe of the month: Idli-Sambar

I am going to open this post with a traditional Namaskara because this recipe of the month is a humble tribute to my South Indian roots. 

Idli is a steamed rice and lentil cake that is a traditional and popular breakfast item of South Indian origin. It is an integral part of any South Indian household. I cannot recount the number of times I've awoken to a breakfast of piping hot idlis with spicy sambar and fresh green chutney. But to be completely honest, during my childhood, I was never overly fond of idlis. I would always prefer dosas (of any kind) to idlis. I sheepishly think about all those times my mum chided me for kicking up a fuss during breakfast over having to eat them. But I started looking at idlis differently ever since my paternal grandmother suggested I eat them with a mixture of chutney pudi (spiced chutney powder) and coconut oil. Although this was a long time ago, I remember clearly that we were traveling from one city to another by car and she had packed some idlis to eat on the way. I was surprised at how much I liked the combination. Even now, chutney pudi has to be one of the sides that I eat with idlis because I love it and it makes me think of my dear doddamma 💖 Post-marriage, when I learned to make them myself and began trying out different side dishes to go along with it, I've developed a new found appreciation for idlis. 

Most idli recipes have rice in them but I have always used idli rava. That is how my family makes idlis and that is the only way I have learned to make them. Apparently my Dad (who is an idli aficionado of sorts) likes his idlis made that way. I feel that the use of idli rava speeds up the process considerably, is much easier to handle and makes for great tasting idlis so I'm sticking with it! Not to mention the fact that I don't own a idli/dosa grinder so my trusty blender will feel ever so grateful for not having the extra work of grinding all that rice!
Update: I do own a idli/dosa grinder now and the step-by-step preparation photos are a latest addition to this post 😊

Here is my recipe. If you have never made idlis before, you should really give it a go. Don't get intimidated by the time involved because the actual procedure is shockingly simple. Also since idlis can be made without a drop of butter or ghee, these healthy little steamed cakes are not only suitable for vegetarians but also for vegans.


Preparation time: 10-12 hours (includes soaking time and overnight fermentation time)
Cooking time (for idli + sambar): 45 mins
Recipe level: Intermediate
Recipe Source: Amma 
Serves: 4-5


For the idli:

1 cup skinned whole urad dal 
1.5 cups idli rava (also called boiled idli rice or cream of rice)
Salt to taste (preferably non-iodized) 
3/4 tsp sugar dissolved in a little water
1/2 tsp soda bicarbonate, Optional
Ghee/oil - to grease the idli plates

Note: If you are using split urad dal then add 1/2 tsp methi/fenugreek seeds along with it so that it aids in the fermentation

For the sambar:

1 cup pearl/baby red onions, peeled and washed + 1 medium red onion chopped
3-4 medium potatoes, cut into equal sized chunks
3 medium, ripe tomatoes, chopped
8-10 curry leaves
a pinch of asafoetida (hing)
3-4 green chillies, slit lengthwise
1 cup toor dal, cooked and mashed thoroughly
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp sambar powder (I use 11/2 tsp MTR sambar powder and 11/2 tsp homemade sambar powder)
Salt to taste
1-2 tsp sugar/jaggery
2-4 tsp ghee/oil


For the idli:
1. Rinse the urad dal once or twice. Do not over-wash the urad dal as it washes away the collected wild yeast. Soak for 1-2 hours. If you are using fenugreek seeds, soak it along with the ural dal. 

2. Adding little by little of the soaking water at a time, grind the dal into a smooth and fine paste in a blender/grinder. Keep in mind that the paste should be soft and fluffy.

3. In a separate container take the idli rava and wash it under ample running water. Drain the water carefully. 

4. Now add the washed and drained idli rava along with salt to taste into the grinder and grind the two along with the urad dal paste for a minute. The batter should be of a medium, custard-like consistency. Put the batter in a big container to allow room for fermentation. The fermentation in the idli batter is caused due to the presence of an air-borne wild yeast, which is drawn by the urad dal and fenugreek seeds from the air. Keep closed overnight  for about 8 to 12 hours in a warm place.

5. The next day, the batter should have risen. If it has not, you can add soda bicarbonate and let it stand for atleast 10 mins. Dissolve sugar in a little water, add to the batter and fold in gently so as to not disturb the incorporated air bubbles. 

If you are not going to make idlis immediately, keep it refrigerated to avoid over fermentation which can result in the batter turning sour.

6. For making idlis, grease the idli plate with ghee or oil. Heat the idli vessel with water (just below the level of the lowermost idli plate) and allow the water to boil. Pour 3/4 the ladle of idli batter to the idli plates and steam it on medium flame for about 10 min or until done. Insert a butter knife or toothpick into the idli and check if it comes out clean. If the idlis are sticky, they are not done yet. 

7. Switch off the flame and take out the idli plates. Wait for them to cool. Do not take out the idlis when when they are very hot as they will not come out cleanly. Use a butter knife or spoon dipped in water to get the idlis out. 

8. Place in a hot box so they stay nice and warm. 

If you want some variations in the idli mould, you could use long steel tumblers. Pour the idli batter into greased long steel tumblers until 3/4th full and then pop the tumblers in an idli steamer and cook till the sides of the idli start to come away from the tumbler and the inside is cooked. 

Here is a kadubu-style of idli I made recently on a separate occasion. 

For the sambar:
  1. Pressure cook toor dal in ample water with a little turmeric and tsp of ghee. Mash the dal with a fork/whisk or blitz in a blender for a few seconds. 
  2. In a deep vessel, heat some ghee/oil and fry some curry leaves and a pinch of asafoetida. 
  3. Add in peeled whole baby red onions and chopped onion, slit green chillies and saute until the onions are translucent. Add in some peeled and cubed potatoes and fry till almost done. 
  4. Add in chopped tomatoes and cook till soft. 
  5. Add the sambar powder (I use MTR brand), salt to taste and sugar/jaggery to taste. 
  6. Mix in the mashed dal and boil for a few mins. Add more water if required to get the desired consistency. 
  7. Garnish with lots of fresh coriander leaves and serve hot with the idlis.

  • Use good quality urad dal and idli rava because it makes a world of a difference
  • If you live in a cold country, you can keep the batter in a closed vessel inside a pre-heated oven or microwave
  • Don't fret if you have leftover batter. You can make utthapams, fried idli or even chill idli the next day! 
  • You can add an assortment of vegetables to the sambar. Some veggies I would suggest are eggplant, carrots, and drumstick. 



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