Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Some write 'idli' and some 'idly', but the image the phonetic sound throws up is the same: soft, steaming nearly-flattened white balls giving off an earthy and hunger-inducing smell. I am talking as an honorary South Indian who loves idlis, but I am sure there are people -- South Indians included -- whose taste buds don't get stirred by the sight or the smell of the idli. I can only feel sorry for them; but then, one can't be judgmental when it comes to food habits: a Korean can pity me for missing out on dog meat or cockroach pakora.

I can proudly say that I love idlis more than the South Indians do. For the South Indian, idli is a matter of habit, and habits are often without emotion. For example, brushing your teeth every morning is a part of habit, but you never look forward to brushing your teeth. But I have always looked forward to idlis, ever since my long childhood in Kanpur.

On a Friday evening every two or three months, my mother would soak rice and urad dal. The next afternoon, my father, after his half-day at work, would take the mix to a local grinder. Impatience began soon after he returned with the batter. Mother insisted that the idlis would not come out nice if the batter was not left overnight to ferment, so we waited for the morning of Sunday -- a holiday, the day of morning serials, the day of the evening movie on TV. It used to be idli breakfast, idli lunch and idli dinner.

The first 16 idlis (that's what a regular pot can hold) I would devour without any accompaniment, for the sambhar would still be cooking and I would have no patience. Once the sambhar was cooked, 16 more. And if any batter was left, then 16 more for dinner. I was so selfish about idlis that I didn't quite care how many others in the family -- mother, father and younger brother -- ate. My hunger would be even more aroused by the spluttering of mustard seeds and freshly-plucked curry leaves in oil.

Then one day I left Kanpur and went to Delhi, the land of tandoori roti and daal makhni. But still, my lunch would often be idli and sambhar, at a restaurant called Sona Rupa on Janpath. That was the safest food to have, even though the price was steep: Rs 25 or Rs 30 for a couple of idlis. (Irony: Sona Rupa shut down a few years ago, and it has been replaced by Saravana Bhawan where, I am sure, idlis come for much less). Eventually I found a very decent South Indian stall near Jantar Mantar off Parliament street. A plate of idlis for Rs 10.

And then one day I migrated to the land of idlis: Madras. The first few days I went berserk. Every time I saw I saw steaming idlis, clad in a white cloth, being offloaded from aluminium pots in roadside stalls, I stopped and had at least two. As long as the idlis were hot, you didn't care about the quality or, at least, the quality of the sambhar. Wisdom dawned only months later when I began to distinguish between good idlis and bad idlis.

Today, a highly popular chain of idli shop in Tamil Nadu, Murugan Idli Shop, has opened outlets in Madras. Both the outlets are a stone's throw from my T. Nagar home. I went there once, twice, thrice... but no more. Murugan Idlis' idlis are soft no doubt, but soft in a very leathery way. And the service can be pretty bad. Sad to see so many people -- including quite a few tasteful people I know -- pining for their idlis.

My favourite is the Triplicane-based Ratna Cafe, which has, fortunately, opened more outlets in the city. Their idlis are soft too, but in a very grainy way -- just the kind my mother made back in Kanpur years ago. And the boys there keep pouring sambhar from aluminium mugs the moment they sense the idlis are getting dry. And the sambhar they make is the best in the world. That's the idli and the sambhar Ratna Cafe has been making since the 1940's. I can spend a lifetime watching their sambhar getting soaked by the porous idlis: eating them all would require another lifetime.


Visithra said...

ode to idlis eh - 16 idlis ??? Wow

maybe I should write an ode to chutney now that I love ;)

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

hmm I agree with you - sometimes Murugan idlis can be a bit - how did i say it - undercooked? there dosas aren't too bad though. i still think the old raayars cafe used to do a great tiffin!

and 16 idlis? without sambar?

Deepa Bhasthi said...

16? wow!
I agree with you though. Idlis are simply...delicious (for want of a better word). I hate dosas, in spite of being a Southie. So idlis have been my favoured food whenever I travel. I somehow tend to think they are cleaner than the rest. Dont ask how, I know it sounds weird. They are my safe food.
Good one.

Somashekhar said...

I too tasted the ratna cafe idli's of triplicane,and from murugan idli which is on same road of triplicane,i like dosa of murugan.

Paresh Palicha said...

You Idli fiend. Your writing made a bland ball like Idli into a delicacy to savour. I’ve been to Murugan’s (no idea about the exact location) for lunch, when I was in Chennai last July, didn’t enjoy the experience as the place was very crowded & inaccessible.

Nowadays, the packaged dough has robbed the romance out of having Idli for breakfast on Sunday mornings, in my home Sundays were booked for Southern dishes; Idli for breakfast, Samabhar/rice/papadam for lunch & dosa for dinner.

We have a couple of roadside eateries famous for Idli here in Kochi. SMS me when you’re here, hope you’ll enjoy eating there.

Very well written post; I was drooling while reading it.

Usha said...

I always thought that idli as a dish per se was overrated - all the taste comes with the combination - idli/chutney, idli/sambar, and in our weddings idli/gothsu. Of course it is a very safe food being steamed and all that.I guess I have been unfair - I shall revalue my idlis next time I have them.
May i nominate you for consideration for a "honorary Tamil citizenship" for this devotion to idli - 16 without accompaniment!! You are a hero - I salute you!

crsathish said...

Nice posting;it has been 2 months time since i tasted my all time fav idly. ur posting is tempting me to think seriously abt "life without idli & sambar"

Anonymous said...

I am a madrasi now in brisbane for the last six months... ur blog does really make me wonder whether I should advance my tickets by three weeks and come back now :)
good one.

in2mind said...

Its a little weird you know.For the Northies - like Delhi,Idli is a special delicacy . I was quite shocked
when i was in Delhi - they were sold for upwards of Rs.30 !

& for the south ppl, Roti & Naan is very spl ....A roti that sells for Rs.2 in Delhi goes for 20 bucks here :p

btw Saravana Bhavan is not cheap in Delhi ! Though its a southie restaurant,pricing is as per Delhi standards.

Anonymous said...

Your blog took me back to 2003 when I was there in Chennai. Ratna cafe was "best". I still remember the thali-full of sambar on two decent idlis.. It was better than Saravana Bhavan.

You are wrong about Koreans though.. Majority of them neither eat Dogs nor do they eat cockroaches. A very tiny minority would eat dogs, and now it is forbidden by law.

Anubhuti said...

Looks like it's my husband talking, his sunday mornings were made of Idli and rangoli.

Ms S said...

Idlis are something that me and my sister can have everyday for breakfast, lunch and dinner....