One of the things I miss the most about living in Bangalore is Brahmin’s Coffee Bar. It’s a tiny establishment, but the first time I ate there, it solidified my lifelong obsession with idli (a.k.a. idly or idldly), a savory steamed cake usually made of fermented urad dal (black) and rice.
A bit sour, a bit sweet, idlis are the perfect vehicle for one of my other favorite things in life, coconut chutney. They’re also perfect for a light breakfast – or pretty much anytime of day if you’re as obsessed with them as I am.
Other varieties of idli include vada (fried) and rava (wheat/semolina)–although you may be more familiar with their cousin, the dosa (crêpes also made with fermented dal and rice batter.) I often turn to rava idli (recipe below) for two reasons: shorter preparation time and easier access to ingredients than traditional rice-based idli.
As for chutney, there are endless varieties in Indian cuisine alone, including many variations with my beloved coconut. But my one of my favorite versions (recipe below) includes a burst of cilantro, an obsession of mine that you may recall.
SWEET COCONUT CHUTNEY
In a blender, mix the following ingredients:
- 1 1/2 cups of warm water
- 1/4 inch of tamarind or 1 tbsp of tamarind paste
- 1/4 cup pitted chopped dates (soaked raisins are an acceptable substitute)
- 1 tsp whole cumin (toasted)
- 1/2 tbsp grated ginger
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 3 tbsp roasted unsalted peanuts (can substitute with almonds or cashews)
- 3 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
SPICY COCONUT CHUTNEY WITH CILANTRO
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup unsweetened grated coconut (fresh is preferable)
- 1/2 cup chana dal (a.k.a bengal gram, roasted)
- 3 tbsp green chili
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup cilantro, leaves removed from stems
- 1 tbsp light-tasting vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 large red chillies, dried
Blend coconut, chana dal, green chillies, salt and water in your food processor until it forms a smooth paste. Pulse in cilantro until fully incorporated.
Next, you’ll be tempering in the spices using oil so that this extra flavor is fully distributed throughout the chutney. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. Add in the mustard seeds and dry red chillies until their aroma is released. Often times this recipe calls for toasting an extra 1/2 tsp or so of chana dal, but I prefer my chutney without.
EASY RAVA (WHEAT) IDLI
One of the more delicious idli houses in Bangalore, MTR, claims to have invented rava idli out of necessity during WWII when rice was in short supply and semolina was more available.
History aside, I’ve been impressed with how much “more” rava idli can hold. While rice idli are generally served plain, rava idli get jazzed up with all sorts of extra embellishments such as cashews, onions, and chillies thrown into the batter, making not only the flavor but textural experience markedly different from rice idli.
Rava idli is also significantly easier for cooks in North America to make for two reasons:
(1) Availability: Urud dal is not commonplace outside of Indian grocery stores
(2) Shorter Preparation Time: Regular idlis require you to make the batter and let it sit overnight to ferment. Rava idli can be made in a fraction of the time.
- 1 inch of ginger root, grated
- 2 cups of buttermilk*(Can quickly make with 2 cups whole milk & 2 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar.Sit aside 10 min or until it curdles.)
- 1 cup cream of wheat
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp eno salt (Digestive salt. Baking soda may be substituted.)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp whole mustard seeds
- 1 tsp cumin (dry toasted)
- light tasting vegetable oil such as grapeseed or sunflower oil
- 1/4 cup minced vegetables (I prefer celery, onion, green chillies and sometimes leeks.)
- 1/4 cup toasted cashews, chopped
- 1 bay (laurel) leaf
(1) Toast the Spices
Bring a pan to a medium-heat and add bay leaf, cumin, mustard seeds to 1 tbsp of vegetable oil until their aroma intensifies. Remove from pan to cool.
(2) Sweat the Vegetables
Add vegetables to the pan and cook until they become slightly translucent and are softened.
(3) Make the Batter
Add the cream of wheat and stir frequently, until they become lightly golden in color. Turn off heat and add the baking soda and eno salt. Mix well and let cool.
Next, add the buttermilk, mix well, and let stand 15 minutes, or until the cream of wheat (rava) is soft. Remove bay leaf.
(4) Cook the Idlis
An idli stand used in a pressure cooker is ideal, but in a pinch, I have placed individual cupcake tins on top of my steamer tray to make these tasty cakes. The second option may take a bit longer to fully cook the cakes – and may not produce as fluffy a final product.
Once you have your apparatus ready and lightly oiled, fill your pot with 1/2 inch of water. Place on stove over high heat. Place batter into each individual tray 2/3 full. Put the trays in the pot before the water begins to boil, cover, and cook for approximately 5-7 minutes.
There are a number of tests for doneness with idlis including “an evident fragrance” or when they are “firm to the touch,” but the easiest test for me is using a toothpick (as you would with a cake). Insert the toothpick and remove. If it is still clean, the idli is done.
(5) Cool & Serve
Remove the trays from the cooker and let cool a few minutes. (Caution: This takes a lot of willpower.) Serve with chutney of choice.