The perfect idli is something of a work of art, most fans of this South Indian delight would agree. A fluffy, melt-in-the-mouth, very subtly sweet and tangy (thank you, fermentation!) pert little cloud of white, it is an edible pillow that is eminently dunkable into a host of chutneys, dips, sauces, subzis, dals, gravies, curries, and what-not.
The purist may gravitate straight towards the classic version of this item or perhaps the ghee-soaked mini variant or another peppered with molaga podi (an aromatic, crunchy and spice-laden dry chutney) or the popular Kanchipuram variety packed with black pepper, cumin and mustard seeds and ginger among other elements – all of which are widely available across all outlets, small and large.
But, hearteningly, there is a lot more on the other side of this fleecy horizon than you could have imagined.
At the unassuming G1’s Vishwa, for instance, their special idlis take on the shape of cup (more like a muffin) that runneth over with delight, thanks to innovative stuffings, including a peppery paneer subzi, another chilli potato mash and even a third gorgeous spinach-cheese melt. All of these go not-so-surprisingly well with the fermented rice-dal covering they are packed into.
Mr and Mrs Idly pulls off a lovely set of innovations as well, doing its name quite proud. Of the several versions of this amiable item served here, some unusual stand-outs include a ‘Punjabi idly’ (which arrives coated in a spicy preparation of soft paneer bits), the ‘French fry idly’ (which involves ‘fingers’ of idli cut and fried to a delightful crisp and then generously sprinkled with a cheese powder that leaves you licking the plate) and, based on availability, a gorgeous stuffed ‘pickle idly’, packed with the fiery-tangy South-style thokku condiment.
In the ornately elegant ambience of Savya Rasa, a simple sandwich of chutney idli (with thin buns of the steamed rice cake ensconcing piquant coriander and red chilli chutneys in two layers) forms a tricolour offering of sorts, attributing its origins to Mangaluru. The added bonus here is the large number of fragrant and absolutely delicious non-vegetarian curries (made in the style of several regional South Indian recipes) that you could dip this into, including Nellore’s tamarind-laced seer fish chepala pulusu, Malabar’s rich cashew cream-laden nalukettu kozhi (chicken) curry, or Nasrani-style mutton irachi stew simmered in coconut milk.
Sticking to tradition as well, Iddos coats its alternative idli offering in a gorgeously unique curry leaf covering – the karuveppilai idli here is coated in a ghee-tossed dry spice mix, composed mainly of the earthy, deliciously bitter and aromatic cooking leaf, making for a true mouthful to represent South India.
Dosa Plaza, on the other hand, opts for a fusion spin. Here, you can sample the delights of idli manchurian or even a spicier schezwan version, both made in that Chindian style we all so love, besides their rich and creamy grated cheese (or paneer) infused idli manchurian.
Madras Coffee House churns out its own version of kaima idli, which is so ubiquitous in eateries across Chennai, Bengaluru or Hyderabad but rather more elusive in Pune. Crunchy, well-fried idli chunks mingle with a smattering of vegetables, plenty of spices and chilli and a garnish of chopped coriander to fork up.
Alternatively, if DIY is your true heart’s desire, head to Dravida’s Bistro, which offers you the option to ‘build your own idli’. Choose a base of large traditional rice or rava (semolina) idlis or opt for a heap of mini idlis. Next, you get to decide whether you would like to stuff them gently with a subtle potato masala, a savoury mushroom kari or a paneer-mixed veg combo with pops of creaminess in it. These idlis are then tossed in your choice of ghee, white butter or podi chutney to make for a truly flavour-packed mouthful. The restaurant also offers a healthy banana leaf-steamed version of idli, as well as a combo meal of soft idlis to douse with a silky kaalan kuzhambu curry of assorted veggies.
Drown it all in a tumbler of scalding, strong filter kaapi, and you will be just as delighted as we were.
Shweta has been writing about food for a few years now and has dabbled in TV, print and online journalism for over almost a decade. She has written on and edited for topics ranging from the environment, culture and lifestyle to politics, business and, of course, food. She has written for publications under the Times Group, Fox Life India and NDTV. When she's not devouring a good book or spending vast swathes of time on the Interweb, she loves to set off on all manner of culinary explorations.