Monday, November 10, 2008

Real Food IX: Idlis

Traditional cultures throughout the world went to great lengths to maximize the nutritional value of the ingredients they had. Fermentation is a technique that was widely used for preparing grains and legumes. Humans are not well adapted to grains or legumes, in large part due to their assortment of anti-nutrients (substances that prevent the absorption of nutrients) and other toxins. Fermentation is a very effective way to eliminate anti-nutrients, making grains and legumes more nutritious and easily digested.

Idlis are steamed, naturally leavened cakes made from a fermented mixture of ground rice and beans. They're mild, savory and fluffy, and pair well with nearly any dish. I think they fill in well for bread. Due to the combination of rice and beans, they contain a fair amount of high-quality complete protein. They are also very economical. Idlis have their roots in Southern Indian cuisine more than 1,000 years ago. They may have originated as a fermented bean dish, with rice added to the recipe later in history.

The recipe takes 2-3 days to complete, but actually doesn't require much work. First, the beans and rice are soaked separately, then they are ground and mixed, then they are allowed to ferment for 24-48 hours and steamed. This type of days-long soaking and fermentation process is common in many grain-based cultures worldwide.

The recipe traditionally calls for short-grain white rice and urad dal (split black gram). I've been using short-grain brown rice with good results. You will only be able to find urad dal in an Indian grocer, specialty store or online. If you can't find urad dal, try experimenting with other types of mild dry beans.

Ingredients and materials
  • One cup urad dal or other dried bean
  • Two cups short-grain brown or white rice
  • One teaspoon fenugreek (optional)
  • Two teaspoons non-iodized salt
  • Filtered or otherwise dechlorinated water
  • Muffin tray
  • Large pot for steaming (optional)
Recipe
  1. Soak urad dal and rice separately for 6 hours (longer if you're using a different type of bean). Add fenugreek to the rice before soaking (optional). It's used traditionally to speed fermentation.
  2. Pour water off the urad dal and rice/fenugreek mixture. Don't rinse.
  3. Grind the urad dal in a food process or or blender with a minimum amount of water until it's a smooth paste. The water must not be chlorinated or it will kill our bacteria! Brita-type water filters remove chlorine, as does boiling or leaving water uncovered overnight.
  4. Grind the rice/fenugreek mixture coarsely with a minimum amount of dechlorinated water.
  5. Mix the ground urad dal, ground rice and salt. The salt must be non-iodized, or the batter will not ferment! Pickling salt, kosher salt and unrefined sea salt work well. Add dechlorinated water until it's a thick paste, stirrable but not liquid.
  6. Ferment for 24-48 hours. You know it's ready when the dough has risen significantly, and the odor has gone from harsh and beany to mild and savory. Fermentation time will depend on the ambient temperature.
  7. Fill muffin trays about half-way with batter and steam until a knife inserted into them comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. You can also bake them at 350 F. It's not traditional, but I like them baked almost as much. If you really want to be traditional, you can buy an idli steamer.
Here are photos of my last batch. Soaking the urad dal and rice:


Batter, pre-fermentation:


Batter, post-fermentation (48 hours). It more than doubled in volume. The color didn't actually change, that's just my camera.


Ready to steam or bake.


After baking. One escaped! Into my belly.


Thanks to Soumya dey and Wikipedia for the top photo

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