The Idli: Humble and Wholesome, Timeless and Tasty
“I would probably hold the world record for serving the largest number of idlis in a day! At one time we served a total of over one lakh idlis a day across our restaurants in Mumbai ”, says Dr. Vithal Venkatesh Kamat, Chairman and Managing Director, Kamat Hotels (India) Ltd, recalling the time when he was involved with the family restaurant business that owned 28 restaurants across Mumbai serving a variety of South Indian specialities.
The idli is close to Dr Kamat’s heart, soul and stomach as he says his journey started from this humble preparation that was his staple food in childhood. Every day his mother made the most delectable idlis – soft, fluffy, light and tasty- that the family enjoyed with coconut chutney. That she sang while preparing them seemed to infuse them with love and tenderness. And Sunday was most awaited as neighbours dropped in to enjoy his mother’s famous idlis, and on that day she also made an additional chutney –the delicious, slightly chilli red chutney that they all loved!
It was the idli that saw Dr Kamat through many meals and situations as he vouches for the fact that is a light, nutritious, easy to prepare, tasty and filling preparation. Tracing his Goud Saraswat Brahmin family’s tryst with idlis, he says, seven generations ago his forefathers arrived near present-day Karwar from Kashmir.
“Settling in at the scenic coast, a land of temples, they assimilated local Udipi cuisine into their own food, and revered the food given by temples to devotees. Temple food is sattvic. It is easy to make, easy to eat and digest, and is nutritious. Idli was one of the foods given by temples”.
According to Dr Kamat, the secret to making light, fluffy and tasty idlis is firstly getting the proportions of dal, rice and water right; secondly, grinding these very slowly on a grinding stone for the ingredients to blend well and to be well aerated; and thirdly, keeping the dough for seven to eight hours for fermentation before being spooned into the tray for steaming. For added flavour and lightness he says coconut milk can be added to the dough.
As we all know idlis are best enjoyed with chutney and sambar. For a delicious coconut chutney Dr Kamat recommends ensuring only the while flesh of the coconut is scraped, and roasting the ingredients – rye/ mustard seeds (broken just before being put in the oil), kadipatta, green chillies- lightly on a low flame and before being ground into chutney. While there are different types and styles of sambar prepared, he says, the best is prepared with small onions grown in Udupi; with Double Ghoda variety of tur dal; by adding a bit of jaggery; a pinch of pure hing; and drumsticks for nutrition and to give thickness to the dal.
Dr Kamat’s knowledge and knack of preparing delicious idlis has held him in good stead especially during his travels. When he went to London on a one way ticket as a young man, he took up work at Shaan restaurant to earn a spot of money. He found that the idlis being served were very chewy as the person preparing them was not allowing the mix of udad dal and rice to ferment overnight, and was mixing a bit of yeast into the mixture for it to rise. He took over making them the proper way, soon introduced various such as idlis with chicken and mutton, and thus won over diners. And when someone asked him what the name of the preparation was he said it was rice dumpling served with coconut sauce!
Dr Kamat has many stories to share about his life’s journey that he put down in his book titled Idli, Orchid and Will Power. The book written in a simple and honest style pays tribute to the humble idli from where he says he started his profession and whose success contributed to his conceptualizing and building The Orchid Hotel, Mumbai that has received the maximum number of awards for being the most environmentally sensitive hotel in the world!