As of late, I have been having a lot of Malayali/South Indian food cravings. The simplest recipes like moru curry (a simple dish of yogurt and turmeric served over rice) and pickled mango or lemon (achar) have brought me great comfort. Several weeks ago I called to ask my mom for her her avial recipe (and she said that’s when she had an inkling I was pregnant!) I simply have not been able to get enough of the nostalgia-inducing flavors of home.
Most recently, I wanted to try my hand at an old favorite, idli with sambar. Idlis are small saucer-shaped cakes made from a batter of basmati rice and urud daal (white lentils). The process is a bit complicated for a first-timer, as it involves first soaking the rice and daal. Then, these are ground in the blender using the right proportion of water added to the 1 cup rice:1 cup daal ratio that my mom employs. The amount of water needed was dictated by her sense of the consistency and smell of the batter. Some cooks add baking soda, club soda or even sprite to help the idlis stay soft, but my mom never had to do this. She just knows! She also never added cooked rice or fenugreek seeds as various cooks might. There are a variety of methods, but the important process is allowing the batter to ferment overnight. In warm climates such as Kerala, this is not a problem. However in the slightly colder winters of Philadelphia, this presented more of a challenge. My mom would turn the oven on for 10 minutes, turn it off, then leave the batter inside overnight. It provided a warm enough temperature for the natural fermentation process to occur. The next day she would add salt, ladle it into the idli pan, and voila! The great thing about this batter is that it can be used to make dosa as well. You just cook it like you would a pancake.
Since I was in a bit of a rush (and not keen on wasting daal and rice and having to start over without the luxury of the time needed to ferment), I simply cheated and bought the idli batter at the local Indian grocery store. It works great, but one day I will try to make it from scratch! One day…
Just as important as serving soft idlis is serving a delicious curry or chutney over it. In my case, I like to drench every morsel of idli with sambar or chammanthi curry (a south Indian chutney). I had been intimated to make both of these before as I thought they were very complicated, but as it turns out they are two of the simplest things to make. Especially the chammanthi!
For the sambar, you can choose whichever vegetables float your boat. For mine, I used carrot, potato, eggplant, green beans, okra, and onion. The okra really adds that slightly sticky texture that I love (similar to what okra does to gumbo), and I only used four okra. Since there are so many veggies, you only need a small portion of each.
Once everything is peeled and cut into small chunks (see photo below), wash everything in a colander and dump into a pressure cooker with a half cup of yellow moong daal and just enough water to cover everything. This is the fastest method of cooking down all the veggies and lentils. Per my mom’s instructions, cook in the pressure cooker for 2 whistles, then turn off the heat and let the pressure reduce (do NOT open the lid until all the pressure is out!) Every pressure cooker has an indicator that tells you when this occurs.
In a separate small pan, create the tadka. First heat vegetable or coconut oil and allow mustard seeds to pop. I recommend covering the pan for this step as the seeds travel far and can burn you! Then add red chili powder (to your liking for level of heat), a small bit of turmeric (this can be overpowering so keep it to under a teaspoon), coriander powder (about 1.5 tablespoons), the tiniest flick of asafoetida (very pungent in larger quantities), and half a teaspoon or so of tamarind paste for a bit of sourness. Mix together with the hot oil and mustard seeds, then pour into the cooked vegetable/lentil mix. Stir together, add salt, and you’ve got your sambar!
I had to adjust a lot of my spices (namely I needed to add more coriander powder and salt), so keep tasting and adding once the oil tadka has been added.
For the chammanthi, you just have to blend some coconut (I buy the frozen ground coconut), a quarter of an onion, ginger, salt, and red chili powder with some water to make a loose paste. Then make another tadka with vegetable or coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and thinly sliced onion (about 1/4 of an onion). Once the onion is browned, add the coconut paste to the tadka and heat until steaming. You can add water to achieve a looser consistency to your liking.
The idlis can be enjoyed with either the chammanthi curry or sambar, or both together!
I apologize for the non-specific measurements, but any Indian knows the amounts or based on preference =) I also apologize that I do not have photos of the idlis and chammanthi. They went fast!
I now have more confidence in trying new Kerala recipes. Once I master idli and dosa, I want to try my hand at my favorite breakfast, paalappam!