Breakfast or a Snack!
Idlis and dosas (a very thin and crispy crepe) are two of South India’s gifts to the world. Delicious and healthy, idlis are traditionally made from the same batter used to make dosas. The basic ingredients are soaked rice and urad dal, with a few fenugreek seeds for flavor and to aid with fermentation. The rice and dal are soaked separately for about 6 hours (or overnight). They are then blended to a fine paste and allowed to ferment overnight. There are also “instant” idli batter recipes that call for rice flour or roasted semolina (shoji).
Idlis make an excellent start to your day with some lovely sambar to dip into. But they are also welcome any time during the day as a snack or appetizer. They can be made in two sizes: they are typically about 3 inches across, or there is the adorable button idli. This bite-sized miniature idli is especially fun for kid's snacks or adult appetizers.
Idlis are made with either a plain or flavored batter. Think South Indian coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves. Even Sichuan idli is a thing. The pulses and grains can be changed up to your taste. It isn’t uncommon to swap out some or all of the rice for millet, oats, or semolina as an example of just a few of the options. Depending on the ingredients you use, you do not need to go through the fermentation step.
Another way to flavor idlis is to stuff them with masala or chutney. Taking some potato curry (dosa masala) or tomato chutney and stuffing it into the idlis is a popular twist on the idli theme. It is fun to watch Chef Sanjay Thumma make stuffed idlis five ways.
Homemade Idli Recipe
I have to admit to some anxiety when facing the idli and dosa batter process but felt a little silly on the other side of a successful fluffy, fermented batter. If you are short on time and you have a local Indian grocery, they will most likely have refrigerated dosa and idli batter. I have had good luck with the Zanlyn brand. Another option is dried boxed powder, but I have not tried this, so I cannot recommend it.
I hope you will be braver than me and make your own idli dosa batter soon! Please link through to my dosa recipe for a step-by-step recipe for a light, gluten-free, dairy-free, and healthy dosa and idli batter.
Making homemade idlis is the only Indian dish that I have made so far that requires a special piece of equipment. I use a Tabakh 6 rack idli maker that cooks four idlis per rack, for a total of 24 idlis at a go. There are idli inserts for your Instant Pot as well.
- Oil each mold and fill only halfway with the batter because they will puff up as they cook.
- Pour an inch of water into the bottom of the idli pot and place it on a burner over medium-high heat.
- Place the trays into the idli pot and cover with the lid.
- Steam for 10 minutes, then test with a toothpick or knife. If it comes out clean, the idlis are done.
- With a small bowl of water, dip a spoon into the water and gently working around the edges, scoop the idlis out of the molds and serve.
One of the most popular accompaniments for idli is sambar/sambhar. A South Indian stew, sambar is made from lentils, vegetables, and a spice mix that can be homemade, but is often purchased. It is served with meals and is used to dip idlis in to add a savory bite. Podi masala is another crave-able way to eat idli. Podi is a coarse spice mix with chilis and various combinations of spices and other flavorings.
If you love fiery foods, you will want to try a dry chutney from Vidya of Traditionally Modern Food: gunpowder or milagai podi. It is called gunpowder, because of the heat from red chilies. However, eating idlis with your favorite chutney, homemade or bought, is a lovely way to eat these treats. Sambar or peanut chutneys are especially fine!