Share Your Thoughts

A couple of years ago, my in-laws from Madras were visiting us. The day of their arrival also marked my mother-in-law’s birthday. I was excited, yet anxious at the same time. I would have loved to bake a traditional cake, but I knew she was diabetic. Also, as a strict vegetarian, she wouldn’t eat eggs either. What was a nervous, young, daughter-in-law to do?

My thoughts went to back to my own childhood when my brother and I would spend our holidays in Delhi. I remembered one particular weekend with our cousin on her birthday. My aunt had made this wonderfully soft and flavorful Kancheepuram idli cake for the occasion. Instead of fruits, there was ginger, pepper, cashews that tingled one’s taste buds.

My mother-in-law hails from Kanchee-puram, a small bustling town in Tamil Nadu, famous for its temples and its silk saris, so I reckoned she would like it. Eventually, everyone loved it and it turned out to be a great idea for her birthday! I had created “icing” on the cake with molaga podi (Tamil for a spicy dal powder) that read, “Happy Birthday, Amma!” The occasion was quite special.

Kancheepuram idlis have a unique taste, since they contain some very traditional South Indian spices. With ideal accompaniments of coconut chutney, molaga podi (see recipe below) and sambar, this idli is sure to spice up your cooking repertoire. I also recommend using gingelly oil, since it enhances the taste. The ingredients are available at any Indian grocery store.

Kancheepuram Idli

4 cups parboiled rice (washed and soaked overnight)
2 cups urad dal (washed and soaked overnight)
½ cup chana dal (washed and soaked overnight)
3 to 4 dried red chilies (soaked overnight along with the dals)
½ tsp. baking soda (optional, for more fluffiness)
1 cup halved cashews
1 inch ginger chopped finely
2 tablespoons pepper ground coarsely
2 tablespoons cumin seeds ground coarsely
8-10 curry leaves chopped
1 cup gingelly oil
A dash of asafoetida to taste
Salt to taste

Having soaked both rice and dal overnight, wash well with plenty of water. Grind urad and chana dals separately to a very fine paste. Grind rice to small coarseness (like very fine semolina).

Mix rice and dal batters together after grinding.

Add all the other ingredients (baking soda, salt, cashews, ginger, pepper, curry leaves, gingelly oil, asafoetida) and mix well with a deep ladle.

Add a little water if necessary. The batter should be of a thick, pouring consistency.

Cover and set aside outside the fridge for 7-8 hours, undisturbed so that it ferments. You may keep it inside the oven if it is very cold outside.

To make the idli cake, add 2 to 3 cups water to your pressure cooker.

Add some gingelly oil to a pressure cooker’s rice container and thinly coat it. Spoon batter into the rice container so that it is half full.

Heat water in the pressure cooker and place container in.

Steam for 15-20 minutes without the pressure cooker weight.

Insert a fork or skewer into the preparation. It should come out clean if the idli cake is done.

Let it cool down. Gently loosen the edges with a knife.

On a plate, flip the vessel over and gently let the cake out. Repeat steaming process for a second layer of the idli cake.

Making time—Soaking Time: 7-8 hours. Grinding: 30 minutes. Fermenting: 7-8 hours. Steaming: 15-20 minutes per round.

Makes: 3 idli cakes

For the so-called “icing,” one requires to make or buy a spicy dal powder called molaga podi. This powder is mixed with gingelly oil and is usually had with dosas and idlis. You can shape the letters by rolling the paste gently between your fingers. Albeit a messy affair, in the end it is all worth it for your loved one! Decorating the cake further can be left to your own imagination.

Molaga Podi

2 cups chana dal
2 cups urad dal
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
Dash of asafoetida
5 to 7 dried red chilies
Salt to taste
1 small chunk of jaggery (optional)

Dry roast dals, sesame seeds, asafoetida, and red chilies together till golden brown.

Dry grind all ingredients to a coarse powder. (Feel the crispness while biting into it).

Store in an airtight jar or bottle to retain flavor for some time.

Just before serving the idli cake, you can add gingelly oil to the powder and serve it along with coconut chutney and sambar.

As for the coconut chutney, here’s how one makes this item. A hint: the fresher the coconut, the better tasting the chutney.

Coconut Chutney

1 fresh coconut
½ cup chana dal
½ cup urad dal
3 or 4 green chilies
dash of asafoetida
½ bunch cilantro
1 lime
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
4-5 curry leaves
1 tablespoon cooking oil

Chop the coconut into small, sizeable portions so that it could go into the blender.

In a saucepan, sauté urad dal, chana dal, red chilies, and asafoetida till golden brown.

Blend the coconut, dals, cilantro leaves together into a thick, coarse paste. Add a little water, if required.

Transfer the blender contents into a bowl.

Sauté the mustard seeds, and curry leaves and add it to the chutney.

Squeeze the limejuice onto it.

Add salt to taste.

Mix them all together, and you’re done! You may want to garnish with some chopped cilantro.

Hope you enjoy making this unique variety of idlis, molaga podi and coconut chutney. As a variation, you can use stainless steel tumblers as a mould for the idlis. Remember to coat them with oil, though. Those would be perfect for picnicking. Have a wonderful summer!

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian food.