In the world of breakfasts, with colourful lip smacking treats that decorate the plate, the humble South Indian food doesn’t stand a chance. Idlis or Rice cakes as it is called in the other parts of the world is simple.
It is white with an unappealing shape and smells of steam. The food has nothing going for it much. The taste is entirely another thing. It doesn’t tickle the taste buds like a curry would.
It has neither any spice nor any sugar. One cannot describe its grandeur with words because its reaction to the palate is the simple salty and the whole mouth feels stuffed. Naturally, it was relegated to the bottom of the list of our favourite food.
Growing up, these rice cakes called idlis were the dish we all unanimously hated. “Oh no!”, we screamed in unison when given the prospect of having this. If ever, this dish made its way to the dinner table, we made faces and we always came up with an excuse to not eat.
Dimples glowing on its head
But the dish appeared relentlessly — day and night simply because, for some reason, the whole household thought it was healthy. And if one of us were to fall sick, it would surely turn up on our bedside. Cold? Hot Idlis. Fever? Well, what else but these fat rice cakes in pristine white with hundreds of dimples glowing on its head. Upset stomach?
No prize for guessing because, with whisps of steam making funny twists and curls in the air luring our senses, grandma thought, that could settle anything in the tummy. But, we were certain — medical miracle or not, we found every reason to avoid it. We hated it and we never put our finger on it. Naturally, I didn’t bother to learn the art of making these fluffy cakes. Who learns to make something you hate? I reasoned. Well, I was wrong.
It was when I was a new bride living in a small apartment on a busy street, that I fell in love with these little fair treats. A family of four lived across our house. One bright wintry weekend, the kind lady knocked on our door and presented the most exquisite breakfast.
My fingers tingled with warmth as I took the tray from her. My senses alerted and my mouth felt moist. That morning, I dug into the most lip smacking breakfast in a long time. For the first time in my life, I realised, I didn’t hate idlis.
The cotton candy like texture, the warmth, the spicy accompaniment, the aroma of the vapour made up for the perfect combination to awaken my friendship. I knew at that moment, I had to not just learn the recipe but master the art of making them to create the perfect cakes with the softest texture.
It was not easy. I had to start from scratch. I had previously attempted and had failed miserably in spite of following my mom’s recipe book.
So, I restarted by learning to identify the ingredients, understand the ratios, the precooking process and to finally get the delicacy on the table. It has been a long and arduous journey dotted with every version of chewy white mass that varied from miserable to outright gross. But, I was at it, trial after trial churning out pale white dimpled mass with wisps of steam.
Fast forward to the present day, I carry on the great legacy of the rice cakes. I tell the same tales of the miracle dish of the century called idlis to my teenage son.
I tell him how it is the best dish that human beings have come up with to combat anything. But, many a time, to this day, on special wintry mornings, I think of that moment in my life when my kind neighbour showed me how to fall in love with idlis.
— Sudha Subramanian is an author and writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman