Today is the day when I have to do some banking work. I know this will take several hours and I might not have the energy to come back and cook. But I can’t decide as yet what I plan to make for lunch. I walk downstairs and wait at the gate for auto-rickshaw and I am distracted by the aroma of the steaming idlis. There is a large crowd around the cycle hawker who is churning out freshly steamed idlis in a jiffy. His make-shift-bicycle has one big container of Sambar hooked at the handles, and another one of Chutneys. A big steamer is kept on the stove at the back-seat of the bicycle. He washes the serving plates from a bucket of water and throws away the dirty water on the unused side of the footpath, then rinses with more clean water from another bucket. It is unhygienic but people don’t seem to mind. They wait patiently as he arranges the steamed Idlis in the small steel plates, pours a ladle full of hot Sambar on it and add coconut chutney. At Rs12 a plate, it makes a complete nourishing breakfast.
I make a mental note of ordering that for lunch when I return back home. Living in Mumbai, eating road-side food doesn’t bother me, even though I am aware its unhygenic, unlike my NRI cousins who always report sick if they try such stuff. When I come back I enjoy my lunch at Rs 24 of two plates of Idli-Vada-Sambar-Chutney. The Idlis and Vadas are very tiny hence my plate had 8 Idlis and 8 Vadas, each the size of a walnut..
That is the comfort of living in India.
I have known this Idliwallah as long as I can remember. He arrives at 10a.m on his cycle which serves as his mobile restaurant. Many times I just buy Idlis from him and make Chinese veggies and this makes a perfect combinations. Steamed Idlis and stewed Chinese veggies…howzatt? Yumicious!!
Back then, when I lived in Spain, this was the luxury that I used to miss the most. If I wished to eat Idli, sambars then I need to make it. We had to plan it one day ahead. Early morning I would soak rice and lentil for few hours. After few hours of soaking, I would grind these separately, mix it and keep it for fermentation for more than 16 hours. In Spain, the fluffiness of the idli depended on the weather. In cold weather, we wrapped the bowls with large towels and kept them in oven for fermenting, but most of the time it didn't ferment well, the idlis were sticky and hard. But still we relished it and even invited friends over for this treat. Chutney and Sambar was cooked too and this would last for two days. We made enough batter, to make Dosas and Uttappas too.
For people who live abroad, fermenting of the batter is the experiment they have to try again and again to reach to certain level of perfection. “Switching on the oven and turning it off, then hoping for the batter to ferment does nothing either, at least in this house. Well it does, but it’s more complicated than that.” Says Jugalbandi, a food blogger, who uses ‘Eno Fruit salt’ to make his batter light and foamy, (Strange, but I have never thought of that)
The best Idli will always be made by a South Indian friend and all my life, at different stages, I have always befriended one south Indian friend who will be kind enough to steam some Idlis for me and this fetish dates back to my childhood days when after school hours, I used to follow my friend to enjoy the meals at her home. . it’s a regular food that is made in every South Indian home. “The smell of savory sponges of heaven, fresh out of the cooker as soon, as I got up is what I grew up with, just like many of my south Indian friends.” Says another food blogger DK and she explains the method of making best fluffy Idlis in her recipes.
Back in India, I have never made Idlis ever again even though there are ready-made fermented batters available at food stores in Mumbai. Going to the restaurant is an easy option. Moreover, we have this Idli and Dosa hawkers at every street corner, so why make a big fuss…..?