No matter which Indian city you’re in, you’d be hard-pressed not to come across a plate of idli-sambhar. If it’s early morning, you’ll find idli sellers on the road. If it’s nearing lunchtime, you’ll have to step into one of the many Udipi restaurants that dot most urban Indian cities. The versatile and healthy idli is ubiquitous and has achieved widespread popularity. But, and some might find this surprising, it was nothing more than a regional specialty up until the ’70s and even ’80s, when it was confined largely to south Indian households. How did it manage to cross geographical boundaries and become an everyday staple across India? Vikram Doctor finds out in this episode of The Real Food Podcast.
Idli seems like a simple, uncomplicated preparation. But, from grinding the flour to the perfect consistency, to ensuring that the batter ferments right, preparing idlis is highly complex and often laborious. Dharavi, a locality in Mumbai known for housing one of the largest slums in the world, perfectly illustrates this. The slum, which houses around 1,000 idli makers, is where most of the idli sellers that are seen on Mumbai’s streets in the morning come from.
One of the idli vendors from Dharavi spoke to us, describing his routine, which begins at 4 am when he wakes up to make idlis, sambhar and chutney, before setting off to distant suburbs, selling around 500 idlis a day. But, that’s not the end of his day. Once he’s back home, he turns his attention to preparing the all-important batter, grinding and mixing urad dal (black gram lentil) with parboiled rice, leaving the mixture to ferment overnight.
This process – grinding and fermenting the batter – is the most important step of preparing idlis. (In fact, there was even a study conducted in 2010 about how the fermentation lends idlis their nutritive benefits.) It’s not rocket science, as Musthafa P.C of IDFresh tells us. But, it requires a lot of physical effort, which is why idlis weren’t so popular outside south Indian households. But, it all changed with a single piece of technology – the wet grinder.
Gomathy Moorthy, a young south Indian bride back in the ’70s, brought along a wet grinder when she came to Mumbai. She settled down in Matunga, and from there began her business of selling idli batter, which is today managed by her son Venkatesh. This business, Vikram says, played a big role in making idli Mumbai’s favourite breakfast food.
But, a bigger role was played by the wet grinder, a machine that made the process of grinding the flour easier and cut down the labour required. Add to that specialised pressure cookers that were developed by companies such as Prestige, and suddenly, idli wasn’t as difficult to prepare. Today, technology has taken the preparation of idlis to a different level. Indian navy warships, for example, are fitted with special idli and dosa making machines that have been developed by the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) – INS Vikramaditya is a popular example.
It’s a simple piece of technology, the wet grinder, but without it, the affordable and versatile idli might not have achieved the pan-India presence that it has today. Tune into the podcast here.