Idlis in South India
In South India we take our breakfasts very seriously. They’re a full-on operation of wholesome carb-heavy, savory preparations, almost always served warm.
Breakfast in our home was never just about nourishment and sustenance. It was an event with which to start the day. And the variety was staggering: from dosas (savory lentil crepes) to poha (a stir fry of delicately spiced flattened rice) to upma (semolina lightly seasoned with curry leaves, ginger, and fresh green chilies) to my favorite, idlis (steamed rice dumplings).
Made from a thick batter of lentils and rice, ground down and left to ferment while the elements do their thing to lend a natural fluffiness to an otherwise slimy mix, making idlis for breakfast is a production that begins more than 24 hours before eating it. A whole lot of measuring, mixing, and waiting goes into the scene that would welcome us at the breakfast table. Mornings that began with the enticing aroma of mildly fermented batter steaming in my mother’s trusty pressure cooker, listening for the reassuring sound of the food processor whirring as a medley of coriander, coconut, and spices came together to make chutney, were the best kind of mornings.
Preparing idlis is an act of slow, deliberate waiting. And we enjoyed the wait as we caught up with each other, sharing conversation and laughter around the table. It was the memory of that anticipation that eventually became my undoing when I moved away.
Suddenly, mornings were no longer about gently scooping idlis out of their molds and stacking them into a casserole. In a new city where I was still teaching myself to cook, breakfast had turned into a quick and dirty affair. Something I grabbed on-the-go, invariably cold, sweet, and stodgy. Cereal that had stayed in the bowl too long, a banana eaten hurriedly, or a handful of nuts munched on disinterestedly.
It was a mundane Sunday morning that broke the warm breakfast dry spell. Overcome by waves of nostalgia for a hot meal to begin the day, I longed to recreate not just a warm, nourishing breakfast of idlis and chutney, but also to revisit the warmth of sitting together with my family. I longed for the comfort of late beginnings, bolstered by the puffy goodness of each bite of idli, drenched in thick, grainy coconut and coriander chutney. I finally started cooking idlis that morning.
It’s the kind of goodness and satisfaction you can’t get from anything instant. No quick fixes, no ready mixes. A warm breakfast of idlis was suddenly more than breakfast. It was a reminder to slow down, to wait for the moment, and to enjoy the process.