In South India most of the reigning deities of various temples are associated with certain foods or prasadam. The dish itself is known by the name of the temple, Tirupathi laddoo, Srirangam athirasam, dosai and aravanai, Ambalapuzha payasam, Azhagar Koil dosai, Kanchipuram idli and so on. Kanchipuram idli is a favourite of Lord Varadaraja of Kanchipuram and as a dish, is fast disappearing from our kitchens. This idli was an afternoon tiffin in my grandmother’s house and making this today has taken me down memory lane once again.
The house would be filled with the aromatic smell of sukku (dried ginger), black pepper, cumin seeds, ghee and of course the mandarai (commonly known as camel’s foot or orchid tree) leaves which were used to line the bamboo basket in which the idli is steamed. Ah, for the good old days. Today, most people who do make this idli make it like the regular idlis that we all know about.
A much denser idli than the regular idlis, this idli didn’t even require a chutney or any other side dish as it is so full of flavour and spice. But you could have it with milagai podi and ghee or sesame oil.
White rice – 2 cups
Urad dal whole – 1 cup
Fenugreek seeds – 2 tsp
Yogurt – 4 tbsp
Bamboo basket for steaming idli (see picture)
Mandarai leaf plates – 4
For the spice mix
Black pepper – 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tbsp
Dried ginger (sukku) – 1 tbsp
Ghee – 4 tbsp
Curry leaves thinly sliced – 2 sprigs
Asafoetida – 1/8 tsp
Salt to taste
Soak the rice, dal and fenugreek seeds for two to three hours and then grind it with the yogurt and sufficient water to get a coarse (almost ravai like feel) and thick consistency.
Heat the ghee and add coarsely powdered pepper, cumin and dried ginger, asafoetida and curry leaves. Add to the dough and add sufficient salt and mix well. Leave outside to ferment for 5-6 hours.
As opposed to the normal idlis, the entire dough is made into one large idli (if you make it the traditional way). Of course, many people steam it like regular idlis too. I wanted to try and do it the traditional way so I will detail that now.
The mandarai leaf is a flexible plate made with 4-5 leaves tacked together with thin sticks. This is a flexible leaf plate and is to be used to line the bamboo basket that you steam the idli in. Use two plates to line the basket vertically and a third one folded and put in to seal the base of the basket. Now pour the entire dough into the basket and stand the basket in a large pot with sufficient hot water to steam for at least 2 hours. Yes, that is right, two hours. Cover the basket with the fourth leaf to prevent water falling into the dough due to condensation. Then put the lid on the pot and forget about the idli for two hours (as long as there is sufficient water in the pot and flame is kept low). The basket actually sits in the water so don’t worry about that.
Remove basket from pot after inserting a wooden chopstick into it to check if it is fully done. Very carefully remove the idli from the basket. For us, this is where disaster struck. Try as we might, we couldn’t get the idli out of the basket. The steamed mandarai leaves kept tearing and we thought we would have to spoon out the idli from the basket. Nisha and I tried pushing it and pulling it in between bouts of laughter and with tears rolling down our cheeks. Ultimately we did get it out, as you can see from the picture. However, I would suggest you use a smaller basket, at least to start off with. This will definitely be a Rajagopalan family culinary story for the future. I don’t think I have been this excited in a long time, as I was when the idly finally emerged from the basket.
Still, the idli tasted amazing and that is what counts right? My uncle happened to visit at the time the idli finally came out and was the first one to eat it. He said it reminded him of the idli his mother (my grandmother) used to make in Srirangam. That was enough for me. It is quite heavy so even a small piece or two will fill you up. Do give it a try. I guarantee you, the taste is worth all the effort.