This week I am giving you a bit of science experiment-type recipe. You know the kind: a project that you can tinker with over a rainy weekend that takes a bit of soaking, peeking, grinding and then fermenting. They’re idli, a south Indian invention of spongy rice-lentil cakes that are made from hulled black lentils (urad dal) and rice that are soaked, ground, fermented and steamed. Idlis have a slight fermented flavor (think Ethiopian flatbread, only milder, white and puck shaped) and a comforting texture that lends them to the breakfast food or a snack category in India. I serve them as a starch with a coconut based dal (lentil soup) for lunch, dinner, and if there are any leftovers, breakfast too. The recipe is adapted from Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through The Great Subcontinent, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, my idols.
Making the batter involves soaking the little white lentil bits (available at Indian markets) and the rice overnight in separate bowls. Next you drain them, grind with a touch of water and leave the batter to ferment at least overnight, if not for 24 hours. That part is pretty flexible, the longer you ferment them, the more flavorful and puffy the idli, but even 4 hours yields a pretty tasty rice’n’lentil puck, especially if you add a few tablespoons of plain yogurt to add a sour note. In the summer the fermentation takes place all by itself, but in the winter idli need a little help. I’ve found that if you place the bowl of batter on a heating pad set on low, the batter will ferment quite well. It will begin to look a bit bubbly and puffy and it will smell a tiny bit yeasty. It sounds crazy, but it’s really simple, and the fermenting not only adds loads of flavor, it also breaks down some of the indigestible starches, making the dal easier to digest.
Idli are usually steamed in an ingenious little stacked unit of metal plates (see above) that have shallow indents in them, or a plastic microwave version of the same. I paid a whopping $12 for mine. You can find idli steamer racks or “trees” at Southeast Asian and Indian stores, or you can use an egg poacher or custard dishes stacked in a bamboo steamer instead.
If the idli experiment is too much for you, just try mt creamy, exotic flavored dal recipe, it’s wonderful ladled over plain bastmati rice. Or you can buy idli mix (no science lab necessary) at Indian groceries, just add water and steam. But really, what is the geeky food-chemistry fun in that?
Idli with South Indian Butternut Squash Dal
Serves 6 (makes 16-20 3-inch idli discs)
For the idli:
1/2 cup urad dal (hulled, split black lentils, which are actually cream-colored)
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
1 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons melted ghee or butter
For the dal:
3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1o fresh curry leaves
1 black cardamom
1 1/2 cups minced onion
1 cup chana dal (dried split, hulled garbanzo beans), soaked for 4 hours, drained
3 cups grated raw butternut squash
4 cups water
1 can coconut milk
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 serrano chile, minced
Make the idli. Rinse the urad dal in several changes of water, cover with water and soak for 8 to 12 hours. Drain and rinse. Do the same with the rice in a separate bowl. Blend the drained urad dal and 1/2 cup warm water in a blender, stopping to scrape down sides. Process until mixture is smooth paste. Pour into a glass or plastic bowl. Add the drained rice to the blender, add all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining warm water to blender and blend until smooth. Add to bowl with ground urad dal, using the remaining water to swish out the blender. Stir in the salt, cover with plastic and nestle the bowl onto a heating pad set on low heat. Allow mixture to ferment for 8 to 24 hours. Peek once in awhile and inhale the fermenty goodness. Make sure your heating pad doesn’t get too hot or you will cook the batter!
About 1 hour and 20 minutes before you want to eat, make the dal. Heat the ghee in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until the mustard seeds have popped, about 1 minute. Add the cardamom, curry leaves and onions and cook until onions are beginning to brown, 8 minutes. Add the drained chana dal, squash, water, turmeric, coconut milk and 1 teaspoon of salt and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently until the dal is tender, about 1 hour.
Thirty minutes before the dal is done cooking, steam the idi batter. Sprinkle the baking soda over the batter and very gingerly fold it into the batter. Try not to knock too much air out of it or the idli will be too dense…you want them to be puff-puff-puffy. Brush the idli indents liberally with melted ghee. Ladle about 2 tablespoons of the batter into each indent, stack the steamer and place it in a pot with about 2 inches of water in the bottom. Put the pot over high heat and when the water in the bottom has come to a boil, cover the pot, reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the idli are springy to the touch and cooked through, about 30 minutes.
Season the dal with the additional 1/2 teaspoon of salt, if necessary. Use a small off set spatula to loosen the idli from the steamer. Serve the idli with a bowl of dal. Sprinkle with serrano chile if you like it a bit of spice. (In the unlikely event you have leftover idli, store them in a ziplock bag once cool in the refrigerator. Reheat by microwaving with a damp paper towel over the top.)