I write this column today slightly ashamed that after a year and a half of scouring the corners of the earth for the best possible lunch advice so you don’t end up with a sad turkey sandwich and granola bar, I never thought to mention idlis. They’re impossible to find if you don’t live in an area with a South Indian restaurant (North and pan-Indian spots don’t always have them), but I’ve probably eaten thousands in my lifetime, and now is the time to pay tribute. I wish I was kidding about the thousands thing, it might even be more.
Idlis, steamed fermented rice and lentil dumplings, are a staple of South Indian cuisine. When your culture has been strictly vegetarian for about five thousand or so years, you’re going to find some innovative ways to deal with the rice and lentil aspect of your diet, a.k.a most of it. My family is from the Northwest region of Gujarat. Also a lot of rice, lentils and chickpeas, and not just in dal. Soaked in water and ground together into batter, rice and lentils are much more than the sum of their humble parts. Gujaratis use a rice and chickpea batter to make dhokla, another kind of baked or steamed savory dumpling/cake. But I’d defect to the South any day for an idli.
While the batter sits overnight in a low oven, it develops a tangy flavor you never knew could come out of two bland ingredients. Steamed in a multi-tiered metal cooking device that also makes incredible poached eggs (ftw!), the cakes come out moist, fluffy and absolutely bursting with flavor. They’re served with the same combo of fresh coconut chutney and sambar, spicy vegetable stew, that you get with a dosa. But here are two ways I like to switch it up when I make them at home.
- Wait a few minutes after they’re out of the steamer, then slice them in half lengthwise with a small sharp serrated knife, stuff them with shredded tandoori chicken and a little coriander chutney and HOLY BALLS! Idli sliders. Are they gluten-free? They ARE! …shit, I need to copyright that immediately. This technique would also work with the frozen ones, which my brother and I used to inhale by the dozen. Truly solid after-school snack.
- Fill each steamer pod halfway with batter, add small dollop each of chutney and Indian pickle and a small cube of seared paneer, fill the rest of the way with batter and BOOM! Stuffed idlis, first of their kind, invented by a halfie with a blonde Jewish chef mother and Indian engineer father. That’s what that combination produces, if you were curious. The rest of today will be spent in fear of the Hindu god of not fixin’ that which ain’t broke smiting me with…I don’t know, chickpeas?
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