Mar 302017

My birthday has rolled around again – 66 this year.  Here are posts from previous years.

Between them are all the birthdays and anniversaries I think worthy of note. This year I’ll note some people who died on this date.  It might sound a bit depressing but we all die and I would really like it (I think) if I joined the illustrious company who died on their birthdays – but not quite yet. I mentioned 3 last year but left off:

1986 James Cagney

2002 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

2004 Alistair Cooke (2004).

I’ll also mention that it is the feast days of Blessed Amadeus IX of Savoy, John Climacus, Mamertinus of Auxerre, Quirinus of Neuss, Tola of Clonard, as well as Shouter Liberation Day in Trinidad and Tobago.

What has amused me for some time now is that of all the semi-serious food days (most from the US) today is a WORLD food day – World Idli Day.  Why, I have absolutely no idea, and I do not intend to make them today. Idli is a traditional breakfast in South Indian households, a slightly savory puffy cake that is popular throughout India and Sri Lanka. The cakes are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils and rice.  There are also numerous regional varieties presented in this gallery.

A precursor of the modern idli is mentioned in several ancient Indian works. Vaddaradhane, a 920 CE Kannada language work by Shivakotiacharya mentions “iddalige”, prepared only from a black gram (urad dal) batter. Chavundaraya II, the author of the earliest available Kannada encyclopaedia, Lokopakara (c. 1025 CE), describes the preparation of this food by soaking black gram in buttermilk, ground to a fine paste, and mixed with the clear water of curd and spices. The Western Chalukya king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, Manasollasa (1130 CE). This Sanskrit-language work describes the dish as iḍḍarikā. The food prepared using this recipe is now called uddina idli in Karnataka.

The recipe mentioned in these ancient Indian works leaves out three key aspects of the modern idli recipe: the use of rice (not just urad dal), the long fermentation of the mix, and the steaming for fluffiness. The references to the modern recipe appear in the Indian works only after 1250. Food historian K. T. Achaya speculates that the modern idli recipe might have originated in present-day Indonesia, which has a long tradition of fermented food. According to him, the cooks employed by the Hindu kings of the Indianised kingdoms might have invented the steamed idli there, and brought the recipe back to India during 800-1200.  Achaya refers to an Indonesian dish called “kedli”, which he claims is similar to idli. However, Janaki Lenin was unable to find any recipe for an Indonesian dish by this name. I see no reason to doubt that idli is Indian in origin.

To make Idli, four parts uncooked rice (Idli rice or parboiled rice) to one part whole white lentil (urad dal, vigna mungo) are soaked separately for at least four hours to six hours or overnight. Optionally spices such as fenugreek seeds can be added at the time of soaking for additional flavor. Once done soaking, the lentils are ground to a fine paste and the rice is separately coarsely ground, then they are combined. Next, the mixture is left to ferment overnight during which its volume will more than double. After fermentation some of the batter may be kept as a starter culture for the next batch. The finished idli batter is put into greased moulds of an idli tray or “tree” for steaming. The perforated molds allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done (about 10–25 minutes, depending on size). A more traditional method is to use leaves instead of molds. Idli can be rather bland and are usually served with chutneys or sambar, a vegetarian curry.

This instructional video gives the basics:

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