Friday, August 13, 2004

an ode to idlis

This is an essay I got by email ages ago.
It is basically a love letter to idlis.

What makes this essay so cool is that the idli is really common-place. It's probably the most common breakfast in a Tamil home. It is only after I went off to college that I realised how rare and precious a good idli is. Many restaurants really screw up their idlis. Once you start travelling towards the North of India, idlies start becoming scarce or are these really hard white rocks you can throw at passing mongrels.

I have no idea who the author is or where it is from. But whoever he or she is, my kudos!

The Ultimate Guide to Idli Heaven
I refer not to the restaurant two-per-head felt cut-outs, stranded on a steel plate next to a puddle of chutney. I'm talking about the genuine home-made product.

Here it comes, with the expert flick of the wrist scooped from the mould, toppling like a tipsy full moon onto the waiting banana leaf where it quivers, puffing out little spurts of steam after its exertions. Here comes one more, and another. Quick! While it is still within its gauzy wrap of steam, the idli must be anointed. Leave to the kaffirs such blunders as ghee. The only true unguent is the oil of the sesame seed - clear, red gold, aromatic and just a soupcon of it, drizzled while the idli is still breathless so that it seeps in, leaving no trace on the palpitant skin. There are still some pleasures to be savoured before you bite into the idli. Inhale. The first hot rush of steam has left the air vaporous with the aroma of rice, subtle, yet substantial. This is not the avid rush of Basmati that cavorts over all other flavours. It is an odour, simple, pristine, on par with that of water cooled in earthenware. Breathe it, it is the grain of life.

At the first lungful you will detect the sharp, sweet, festive aroma of sesame. If you don't, that oil is no good. Sesame oil is to the flavour of rice what butter is to bread - it enhances, but never dominates. Heretics who anoint their idlis with ghee will smell only ghee. These subtleties are lost on them. The oil of sesame must be used with great reticence, not sloshed about like olive oil, soaking the idli like a post-office sponge. (The purist will not acknowledge sesame: gingelly oil is what it should be called). At the second whiff you will discover a green aftertang of banana leaf. The leaf's first protest was lost in steam. This is the merest whimper of green, but it lingers into the first mouthful.

Those idlis are still very hot. Test them. Touch them. Naturally, with your fingers. Good food must be caressed, not impaled. And before you touch, look. The perfect idli is white, biconvex and stippled with tiny pores still breathing steam. If it slithers and collapses on the leaf, it is a failed idli: it will be sticky, dense and unleavened.
The other sort is just as bad. The rampant idli stands solid and spherical, with a predisposition to roll. It has not pores, but pits and craters. It doesn't have an aroma. It simply smells sour. It has the consistency of wet cottonwool when hot and that of a loofah when cold. If it must be eaten, do it quickly, and use a fork. It is probably a restaurant idli and deserves to be impaled.
The first mouthful must be hot, but not so hot as to blister the tongue. Coffee will accomplish that later. The first idli is never tasted. Before you have time to think, it's gone. Halfway through the second, judgement returns. The tongue feels the teasing fizz of the idlis's delicate pores before it yields to its softness. The teeth hang around, de trop.
Which brings me to accompaniments. Chutneys, all 10 ghastly restaurant varieties, ought to be anathema in the kitchen, but they've sneaked in somehow. I'm no chutney connoisseur, so let me pass on to "milagai podi," a spicy, aromatic, crunchy gravel of chillies, roast dals and a hint of asafetida. Build a little volcano of this next to your idli. With your little finger, dent its peak. Now fill the crater with sesame oil, dab the idli in it, and bite. Your tongue will be lava, and you can now model for Dali's Exploding Head, even if you're no angel. Of course, tamer versions abound.
On restaurant menus, idli-sambar is a compound word. Here is a warning - not just any sambar should do. The only sambar fit for the idli is made with onions, and not any old bulb, either - only baby onions, tiny pearls, their sweetness almost liquid within their ammoniacal hearts will do. The gravy must be smooth, never slimy, tart, but not sour, and just fiery enough to be grateful for the exploding sweetness of onions against the teeth. Sesame oil loses out with onion sambar. Nothing but ghee will do here, the home-made stuff, of course, dabbed on before the sambar engulfs the idli.
I wonder if there is anybody anywhere in this country who has never tasted an idli. Idlis are ubiquitous, easily masticated, digested and absorbed, nutritious, addictive and have practically no side effects. Toddlers and patients rejoice in them. Hostelites thrive on them. Office goers welcome them as relief from the many varieties of deep fried protozoa that conspire against leave encashment. For though chutney and sambar are often guilty, the idli can seldom be indicted.
Idlis have a sense of occasion. There is the Deepavali idli of childhood eaten at 6am, when the stomach cringes. You have been up since 4am. Now the oil bath, the sulphurous fog of crackers, the stiff new clothes, all combine to make the eye-lids droop and the head ache. The Deepavali idli tastes different because of all these things and because of its proximity to Mysore paak and mixture and other goodies that the heart craves, but the stomach rebels against at this hour. Only the idli will do.

Wedding breakfasts these days are austere. In my childhood they were orgies of gluttony. Idli was still the entree, big flying saucers awash with chutney or sambar. But they were crowded out by a steaming mound of pongal and avial, crisp vadais, rava kesari or badam halva, jilebi, and a glass of badam kheer. The timid gulped coffee, gobbled their idlis and fled before the pongal came on. Breakfast had barely cleared the gullet before you were hauled back for lunch.
There are idlis and idlis. My father remembers from his childhood in Chdambaram, 60 years ago, tiny idlis the size of a quarter anna coin. With two annas in hand, he would be sent out for this holiday treat to a homely little shack called Chaitanya Hotel. He would stagger home clutching a banana leaf bolster that held at least 50 of these tiny idlis. To this day, my father insists they had a flavour all their own.
The idli is a true cosmopolite. It is only in Chennai that there is a curfew on idlis after 10 am. Idlis are breakfast, you are severely told. But other, more frivolous sorts can be had, any time. My mother recalls her first sight of Kanjivaram idli, brought home as prasadam from the temple. To the five-year-old it looked exactly like the full moon, the size of a dinner plate and misty with ghee, speckled with crunchy golden cashewnuts and crisp peppercorns. The secular version is less fulsome, but still rich, textured, indigestible, and not the easiest of things to cook. You can eat prasadam-sized wedges, that's all.
Then there are the bye-blows, and we must be kind to them - rava idli and semiya idli. Rice has refused to acknowledge these, semolina and vermicelli have blundered in. They are both worthy, I'm sure, but they are not idlis.
Finally, there is the ultimate picnic meal - the stuffed idli. It's one up on the masala dosai because it doesn't wilt. It's easy to eat, no accompaniments are necessary, it's delicious when cold, and leaves no litter. Simply bite into one and find out.
Bon appetit!


Anu said...

I can almost smell the idlis as I read this! Beautifully written. And I can see why you like it (the article, that is. Not the idli) - the writing style is very similar to yours. Good hunting trying to find the author.

TMaYaD said...

I'm a student in gujarat and am really angry with you ;-) . Now I want to catch next train home to eat idlis. My mouth is watering at that beutiful discription of even more wonderful Idlis. Idli is ofcourse my all time favourite.

sambar42 said...

Another mess food victim?
I sympathise TMayaD. I was like that you in once. Now, I can't complain because I have to cook my own food :)

yesbob said...

kalakita po !!