Before we talk about idli, dosa, and idli dosa batter, let me narrate a story from my childhood.
I grew up in a faint little town called Bikaner, on the Western border of India. It is very far, and very different from Kerala, where both my parents belong. Kerala has a strong tradition of sending its natives to other far off lands to work, earn money and send back to Kerala. So much so, that it is rare to find families without at least one person living outside the state. Our family is no exception.
Back to my childhood in Bikaner: the non native population comprised mainly of Malayalis, and a few Tamilians, Goans, and very very few people from the North-East of India. There was a building which we called church, and all Christian denominations used the same church for their Sunday worship. On a typical Sunday, the schedule was something like this:
7 am: Catholic mass (all Catholic groups together)
8am: Church of North India (CNI) service
9:30 am: Jacobite/ Orthodox service
11:30 am: Marthoma service
I think this is the greatest ecumenical example ever.
On most of the Sundays, we would have at least 5 people accompanying us home after church. Most of them would be teachers or bachelors employed in the Army, Air Force, or Border Security Force (yes, we had all three in this small town, it’s very close to the international border, you see!), deprived of the absolute necessity of a South Indian: idlis, dosas, chutney and sambar.
My parents loved entertaining and my Mom is an incredible cook. Sunday breakfast always was South Indian. It could be idli-sambar, dosa-chutney, appam-egg curry, idiyappam-stew, puttu-kadala, even the lowly kozhukkatta and upma had star status among our guests. I remember seeing my mother hustling to make the idli dosa batter, and preparing the vegetables for sambar from Saturday morning itself.
Every week, there would be a different set of guests (no one wanted to over burden my mom). These people got transferred to some other place every 2 to 3 years, so the guest list was very dynamic. But the tradition continued for many years, and had to stop when my mother’s health started declining.
So those are my memories about idli-dosa. Something that was so ordinary for us, and so prized for others. Its also about how selfless one can be, as shown by my parents.
About idlis and dosas
Idlis are one of the healthiest foods on the planet. They are vegan, gluten free, the right blend of carbohydrates and protein, and zero fat. Yes, such a food does exist. Idli was one of the first things I fed to both my kids when we started off with solids. And my 96 year old toothless grandmother also has idlis for breakfast because they are so soft, and so light on the digestive system.
Dosa is typically crispy, accompanied by the heavenly aroma and taste of desi ghee. There are many varieties of dosa, the most common being the masala dosa, wherein there is a mildly spiced potato based filling in the middle. There exist a thousand ways to make different fillings for the masala part of the masala dosa. You can make the filling with chicken, eggs, paneer, mushrooms, well almost anything!
Most modern homes of South Indian origin make and stock idli batter in the refrigerator, to dish out different breakfasts each day. Believe me, each one of them tastes and feels different from the other, even though made from the same batter. This one recipe is the mother of so many breakfast/snack recipes like idli, dosa, masala dosa, uthappam, chutney stuffed idli, and paniyaram.
I am posting an easy method to make the idli dosa batter. Most of the blogs/websites I checked advise to soak the lentils and rice separately and grind them separately. Even though that is the ideal method, I always find myself looking for ideas to save time. Saving a few seconds here and a few seconds there, ends up in saving many minutes at the end of the day!
I wash and soak the rice, fenugreek seeds and urad dal together. Doesn’t make a difference. At all.
I use this exact recipe every single Sunday to make the batter, so trust me on this, I recommend idli dosa batter proportion of 2:1 idli rice and urad dal. I have seen some posts with 4:1 or 3:1 ratio, but would strongly advocate not to save on the urad dal.
Oops! Let me clarify that idli rice is parboiled rice, urad dal is dehusked whole black gram (it is NOT black). You can also use the split urad dal. Just make sure that you are not using very old dal, it affects the fermentation. You will also need half a teaspoon full of fenugreek or methi seeds, and four tablespoons of cooked rice or puffed rice.
For the idli batter to really turn out smooth, you have to soak for a minimum of 5 hours. So if you plan to make idlis for breakfast on Sunday, you should wash and start soaking them on Saturday morning. Now you know the reason why South Indian women are always busy! We have to start preparing one day in advance for the next day’s food ha! So much for fermented foodstuff 🙂
Okay, so once the rice and lentils are soaked through, you have to grind them in either a wet stone grinder or blender. In the wet grinder, the batter does not heat up, and for the same reason, the idlis and dosas turn out tastier. But it requires space, and is tough to clean. You can use the wet grinder if you have to make a large quantity of batter.
I use a blender/ mixie for my small family. The only thing you should keep in mind is to switch off the blender if it gets too hot to touch. Then wait for it to cool down before you resume grinding. You don’t want to kill the bacteria that are going to ferment the batter, right?
Tip: Add some cooked rice or flattened rice (poha/aval) for soft idlis. The poha should be soaked in water for 5 minutes before grinding.
Now let me explain the grinding process for the perfect idli dosa batter. You have to add just enough water, not more, not less. The level of the water should be up to the level of the soaked solids. I prefer to use the water in which I soaked the rice (helps in fermentation). You can grind in batches to avoid overloading the blender. The ground product should feel like very tiny particles when rubbed between two fingers.
Most important step
Disclaimer: In this era of “untouched by hand” eatables, you may go “YUCK” after reading this, but believe me, it works!
So here you go: After pouring out your batter in to a large vessel, you dunk your hand into the batter and give a good mix-around. It is a sure shot way to get super-frothy batter the next morning. What’s the science behind it? Bacteria, my darling, bacteria! From your skin, into the batter! I do this with my appam batter too.
The batter needs at least 8 hours in warm climates, and 14 to 18 hours in cold climates so as to be fermented properly. You must see bubbles inside the batter, or it should raise perceptibly. If you live in cold climates, here are some tips for a perfect idli dosa batter:
- Addition of half a teaspoon of sugar right after grinding
- Pre warming the oven and leaving the batter inside the oven overnight
- Keeping the lights inside the oven switched on
- Addition of half a tablespoon of baking soda half an hour before cooking (preferred for dosas)
- Addition of a teaspoon full of yeast 4-5 hours before cooking
Here is a picture of the fermented idli batter. It has risen in level from where it was last night, is not shiny on the surface, has a sour smell, and has a frothy or bubbly feel.
Please keep in mind that if you are using baking soda or yeast, you cannot refrigerate the batter to use later. It must be used all at once.
Once you have the perfect idli dosa batter, you can add salt, and proceed to making any of these. I like to make idlis on the first day, and dosa on the second day. If there is batter left over after that, I make uthappams or masala paniyarams.
For making idli, you need to have the idli-trays, and a vessel to steam them in. A variety of idli-trays are available. The size of the idli depends on the size of the tray, so you can buy standard or mini idli-trays according to your liking. The whole set is available as idli-cooker, and you can cook around 12 to 20 idlis at a time depending on the set you have. I have stainless steel ones, because I learned that aluminium and teflon cookware are bad for our health.
You have to slightly grease the idli-tray. Although you can use any tasteless oil like sunflower oil or vegetable oil, I like to use ghee for greasing.
Put 3 cups of water into the idli cooker and allow to boil. Pour the idli dosa batter in to each of the depressions, taking care not to spill or over-fill. Transfer the trays into the idli cooker or steaming vessel. Cover and steam for exactly 10 minutes. You can insert a skewer or tooth pick to check whether the idlis are done.
Remove the idli-trays from the vessel and wait for 5 minutes. Now remove idlis from the tray using a spoon or a paring knife. Enjoy the soft steamed idlis with sambar, idli-podi, chutney, or any other curry you like. I have eaten them with chicken curry, fish curry, and paneer. Whichever way you have them, they will never disappoint your taste buds.
The crispiest masala dosas have one thing in common: a cast iron pan. Cast iron requires good care, but it lasts for generations. Teflon-coated or non-stick dosa pans are also available, they make it easier, but not tastier!
If you are using a cast iron pan, you need to grease it slightly with a cloth dipped in oil. You can skip this step if using a teflon coated one.
I make idlis on day 1, refrigerate the batter, and make dosas on day 2. You can technically make anything on any day, but I find that idlis turn out softer on day 1. If you are making idlis from refrigerated idli dosa batter, make sure to thaw it to room tmperature before you cook.
To make a dosa, pour a ladle full of idli dosa batter on to the center of the pan and spread it out using the same ladle fast and evenly, as round as possible. You can make it thin or thick.
The thin ones are the crispy dosas I have been talking about since the beginning of this post. They are also called ghee roast, nei roast or paper dosa. To make them crispy, you have to drizzle ghee on the top, and wait till you can see the underside turning a glorious brown. No, don’t flip! Wait more. The dosa turns brown and the edges start to curl upwards. The surface is completely dry, with no evidence of wet batter (if you have spread it even and thin).
Now you can roll/ fold the crispy delight. You don’t need to flip and cook this one.
The thick small dosas are the ones my mom makes at home. They look like a pancake. You have to flip and cook them. A drizzle of ghee before flipping lends great taste.
These are the most basic and common dishes that can be made from idli dosa batter. Idlis and dosas are typically accompanied by a lentils and dal curry called sambar, or coconut chutney. These are healthy, traditional breakfast items in South India. Their universal appeal is testified by the presence of South Indian restaurants serving steaming hot idlis and crunchy masala dosas all over the world.
I posted this to show how easy it is to make these delicacies at home. Do try my method, and comment to let me know how your idlis and dosas turned out. The secret lies in the perfect idli dosa batter, and I have revealed it now!
Idli dosa batter
- 2 glass parboiled/idli rice
- 1 glass whole urad dal/ black gram
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 4 tbsp cooked rice/ puffed rice(poha)
- Take the first 3 ingredients together in a vessel and wash thoroughly with water at least 3 times.
- Soak the washed ingredients in water for a minimum of 5 hours.
- After 5 hours, transfer the ingredients in to a mixer grinder, add the cooked rice. The water level in the mixer should be right at the level of the soaked ingredients, never more. You can make the batter in batches if your mixer grinder is small in size.
- Grind everything in to a smooth paste. If the mixer gets too hot while grinding, switch it off and resume after it cools down. If you feel that the batter is too thick, you can add little water.
- Transfer to a large container, mix with hand and let it rest for 8-14 hours. The fermentation is quicker in warm climates.