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May 13, 2015

How to make the best Idli batter the Madarasi way…

I am limiting this post to preparation of basic Idli batter only – about how to grind it and store it the original Tamil/South Indian way. Stating the obvious, but having it all recorded has been in my thoughts for a while… so here i go…

The best Indian invention of the century as per Indian housewives is this Idli batter grinder! Without it I remember how my granny used to grind the wet flour in the stone chakki (different from the atta chakki). It was a laborious process. As a little girl, I was fascinated by the stone grinder that I often volunteered to do it for my granny. My working mom found no time to grind the Idli batter ever.

I have to say, the Stone chakki which we called ‘Ural’ in Tamil used to be a good physical exercise & time pass for our women in those idyllically slow decades. Because there were no soaps in the long afternoons the ladies could seek refuge in! Household work was manual to a great deal and those families like ours never took help from maids for helping when it came to the kitchen duties.

Using the stone grind means, one had to necessarily sit cross-legged or squat in the floor, use her legs/arms extensively and lift weights. The grinding stones weighed anywhere between 5 to 10 kg easily. I can’t think of a better work-out including cardio frankly for us girls even in these modern times than doing the stone chakki! In order to fetch water etc for smooth grinding, women had to rise frequently which resulted in involuntary sit-ups!! We did not have fridge at home until the mid ’80s so that meant, the fermented idli batter in those days could not be refrigerated for more than a day’s use. Which made our women grind the batter almost everyday! Because Idli was the staple breakfast we could not do without, wetgrinding was a daily ritual.

I remember my granny always soaked the rice & the dal early in the morning to grind the batter in the late evenings. There was no tv to watch at home until I was in standard 4. She would let the wet flour stand by the night time to be fermented naturally, for use by dawn the next day – invariably for breakfast.

Pitching in the domestic work was such a fun for little girls like us. We did the grinding effortlessly and we were learning the tricks. But world was entering the electronics phase and India was not far behind. We bought our first electric mixer/blender when I was in class 5 – and I had my first Mango Milkshake done by my mom! Alas we still had no fridge at home – my mom never got to have one in her lifetime. Tv came home in the year ’77. But even a mango milkshake that was not chilled was something I looked forward to eagerly every summer. My father sometimes would go to a shop 1 km afar to buy some icecubes. Sometimes I can’t believe the way life has changed for me/us/the world from the late ’70s & early ’80s to the present…

When I started highschool, my grandfather got us our first ever electric Idli wet grinder – a local innovation. ‘Shantha’ was the brand name and the manufacturers were based at Coimbatore. Until now the city leads in production of electrical wet grinders in the state/country. At that time, the grinding capacity of our earliest machine was minimum 5 liters. It was a big grinder that came with an equally matching big stone grind. Once one of my friends got slip disc from lifting the grindstone of the 5 liter idli wet grinder in her home!

Moving from the stone chakki to the electrical wet grinder marks a paradigm shift in the way Desi Kitchen and Home functioned 🙂 As the Indian Nari evolved emerging out of the cooking quarters into the boardrooms, labour and time needed to be saved in the homefront to be expended on official duties. The Idli Wet Grinder, to a large extent as i see it, was a timely intervention. I think ever since, the hotel industry in Tamil Nad and elsewhere started expanding and there has been no stopping the guys… With south Indian restaurants drawing impressive crowds with the basic menu of Idli & Dosa in New York to London to Dubai to Singapore and Delhi, you think such a feat would have been possible without the introduction of Electric Idli Wet Grinder?

Which european or american’s invention is the Idli grinder. Goes on to show, if we Indians put our mind and effort to something, we can achieve whatever we want. Sky is the limit. An Idli Grinder may be simplistic in design and operation, but its  such a thoughtful and most helpful desi invention ever, that needs to be entered in Guinness Records. Wonder if anyone even bothered to patent it. 

But our first wet grinder was not only huge, it was also very tough to handle. It ground the batter for hours and the stone was enormous. Cleaning it was again a tedious work. Yet families were lapping up the new produce in the market. With a steel stand, for the first time, the wet grinder got elevated in height so women needed not any longer to squat in the floor to get the batter done.

We slowly moved over years to the tilting grinder in the ’90s. Improvisation of the Idli wet grinder was clearly underway.

Here’s the evolution history of Idli Wet Grinders in Tamil Nad – a pictorial story!

I have been using a tabletop wet grinder for making the Idli batter for over 2 decades now. I took one – the Ultragrind brand – even to Malaysia. Gave it to a friend when we came back for good.

I used a second one got for 3500 bucks for 10 solid years before the motor slowed down (not even any intermittent service through the years). So I exchanged it for another 1 liter brand new ‘Ultra’ whose price had gone upto 6500 bucks in a decade -almost doubled up – only for a better speed.

But I always think of our family’s first 5 liter wet grinder and my mini 1 liter grinder together. It shows how the family size in India has shrunk. I will be lost anyday without my Ultra wet grinder.

Ofcourse today there are a variety of brands to choose from: Sowbagya, Usha, Ultra, Lakshmi, Preethi etc etc!

Well, I guess I have a lifetime supply of wet grinders & blenders, with the latest set gotten as gift from ‘Amma’ as election promise lolz. Yeah, a freebie 🙂 Making the post a bit spicy here as otherwise Idli is a timid dish to have on your plate!

You may ask why I got it. All family card holders were eligible for the gift hamper. Our CM delivered as promised on winning the elections. I pondered giving up the gift but then wondered whether the local politicians would make a fortune with the sale of unclaimed gifts. It happened once with the free TV freebie issued by the previous DMK govt. My family was eligible for one but we did not claim it and it was misused by someone in the local administration. This time I was determined not to let it happen. So I stood with the General Janata in the ration shop & got the package after signing many forms & affixing my thumb imprint. No, absolutely no shame. We are valuable tax payers to the nation, valuable foreign exchange earners and we can account for every single paisa we have. We are the hardworking and honest and patriotic citizens of India. We belong to NO political party or religious organization. I may have some views on certain issues but then I am a citizen of the secular, democratic Indian nation. So why should not I claim something that was allotted to us by our govt.

So now I have a spare wet grinder & a spare pedestal fan for use. I am presently using JJ’s mixie which is working fine. Total worth of the freebies could work out to over 10,000/- bucks roughly.

I would have donated the gift set but my maid too got one. Irrespective of our status, JJ gifted us all a nice family hamper! Worth it. None wanted mine so I am keeping it.

I don’t want to debate about the legality or ethics of the election freebies. I don’t need freebies to vote for any party and neither did anyone from my state get influenced by the freebies. You simply cannot buy out Indian electorates but we take what is offered lolz and afterall the freebie fashion was set in trend by our former CM Karunanidhi.

Ok, now time to get to the point!

Fluffy Idlis make our traditional Tamil daily breakfast. Full of carbohydrates from rice & proteins from urad dal, its the leading hospital food for the sick and the recuperating as suggested by in-house dieticians and doctors (not if you are a diabetic) because it is steamed and essentially gluten-free. Easily digestible and one of earliest and best baby foods down south. The high carbo content leaves you with sufficient energy to burn in day-to-day activity. Idli is sumptuous and taken with sidedish/subzis like sambhar, chutney, vada etc becomes a wholesome high-calorie breakfast to kickstart your day with.

Since Idli is so staple, I did not want to add it in my blog till now. Then thought, why not.

I grind Idli batter at home in my table-top wetgrinder every week and refrigerate it. Even in Doha I do it. Without my idli batter, i will be totally lost. It comes to my aid anytime and all time whenever I have surprise guests or simply when I am lazy to cook up an elaborate lunch/dinner. Idli doubles up most times as dinner.

When 3/4ths Idli batter is spent, I use the rest to make Dosas. I also use the leftovers to make the yummy Oothappams & Kuzhi Paniyaarams. Thus the idli batter can take many avatars! Quite a handy preparation to stock your fridge with all 24 hours of the day, 7 days of the week, 30 days of the month! Rain or shine, idli is there!

Ingredients & Method for grinding THAT perfect Idli batter:

I grind Idli flour to last for 3-4 days maximum. The rest of the days we have puris, upma, adai etc as we don’t want to miss out on other tiffins.

Ratio of rice: urad dal for Idli batter grinding is always 4:1 That is, for 4 parts of rice, use always 1 to 1.5 parts of urad dal.

Ingredients for grinding Idli batter:

Idli Rice (available only in the south – others can substitute with unpolished/raw Ponni rice)  – 4 cups

Urad dal – 1.5 cups (ideally 1 cup recommended but I go generous with urad dal as it makes idli fluffy & bouncy & supersoft!)

1/2 tsp of Methi/Fenugreek seeds. Add to the urad dal.


Salt to taste.

Note: Strictly NO fermenting agent or raising agent like yeast or cooking soda

Rinse the rice and the dal separately. Soak in water for atleast 3-5 hours. The longer the better. Both rice & dal will absorb water so care must be taken to ensure there is sufficient water standing over them.

If you have a wet grinder (from Tamil nad obviously) – grind the urad dal first to thick and creamy vada batter consistency for atleast 1 hour, after draining the excess water. Or keep the standing water handy to use while grinding. Stop the grinder running from time to time and brush inside the dal sticking to the walls of the grinder vessel.

Use water copiously while grinding the rice/dal but maintain consistency. The battery should not be too liquidy.

When the dal becomes buttery soft, scoop it into a container. I use tupperware.

Next grind the rice for about 10 minutes – neither too soft nor too coarse.

Mix both the batters together & salt it.

Store the batter in a large container leaving space for the idli batter to ferment and ‘rise.’

Leave for fermentation in cool shady place. DO NOT REFRIGERATE AT THIS POINT. No need to add yeast or any other chemical agent.

It takes about 10 hours for the Idli batter to ferment and rise to double volume in typical Indian winters/monsoons. If you live in a very cold place, pour the batter into a hotpack/food warmer/casserole to capture & retain heat. Remember, the dish must be large enough to provide room to rising batter.

Depending on the rice/dal quality, you batter can rise ‘double’ or less. Mine is 2 times always because I use the top of the line Idli Rice & Urad Dal. Grinding to correct consistency is also key to steam the perfect Idlis.

In summers, be alert, it takes less than half the time for fermentation! In under 3-4-5 hours sometime, your Idli batter must be ready for use having fermented with a zest!

Idli is packed with nutrition and beneficial bacteria which is why it is easy on our stomach. PROBIOTICS. Why buy the digestive juices from supermarkets, include it the natural way in your daily menu in the form of Idlis, Curd (dahi) etc. 

Idli is light on your stomach, gets easily digested so I always give my son Idlis for breakfast before he leaves for exams. Idli never upsets stomachs. 

Once the batter is fermented enough, do not leave it in the open for long. Refrigerate it immediately.

In winters, this batter can last you even for 15 days but better not keep it that long. Simply cut the quantum of grinding.

In summers, the fermentation is quickest and its advisable to use up the wet flour within 3-4 days from the day of grinding or else the batter can get sour.

Handy home preparation. There is no south Indian home without the Idli grinder or ready-to-use Idli batter in the fridge.

Why NOT to buy readymade Idli batter from supermarkets:

* Not sure whether they use or not a rising or fermenting agent like yeast or any chemical. We never do it at home.

* Some use cooking soda but I never. Can’t say the Idli flour packets from store shelves will be free of cooking soda which is harmful to our stomach. Cannot guarantee the batter is gluten-free.

* Not certain about the water cleanliness. I don’t normally trust wet flours/batters from food sections of stores.

Mostly the Idli batter industry (if I may call it – generally it is cottage industry run by women who also make pickles, jams, mushrooms, papads, soya chunks for a living) remains an unregulated one in our state/country.  True, some brands have made their names. But I do buy ground Idli/Dosa batter in the middle-east because there we have a very strictly regulated food sector where regular and stringent inspections are norm of the day. Any contamination or adulteration or compromise in quality will lead to shutting down the units. 

Nothing is like homefood. I am 100% for homefood only.

There are many variations to Idlis: Ragi Idli, Rava (Semolina) Idli, Semiya (Vermicelli) Idli, Vegetable Idli, Masala Idli etc. I am leaving them out for the present.

I live in a middle-class neighbourhood where a couple of very old women come with large pots balanced in their heads, selling Idli batter ground out of Ration card rice & dal! TN govt shells out 20 kg of free rice every month to each household rich or poor. Plus the dals come at a very subsidized rate. Surprisingly of good quality. Many families seem to make a living out of the ration surplus. This batter that comes to my doorstep seems fresh and sells out quick! I asked my maid about the Idlis and she once got me and showed what she had steamed. It was real nice and soft and fluffy – looked as great as any street food! Not even 5-star Idlis can match it! Wish I could draw the courage to try the batter from the street someday!

Even in Doha I prepare Idli batter – north Indian guests luv our desi/south Indian recipes coming straight out of our kitchens.

In south Indian restaurants like Saravana Bhavan in Doha, I am seeing a good no. of British, the Arab and Pakistani families visiting exclusively to try south Indian dishes. Top on the list of their order are always Idlis, Dosas, Vadas and Pongal.

Wet Grinder Vs Blender

When it comes to homegrinding the idli batter, we can use a multipurpose blender in lieu of the modern wet grinder but down south we prefer stone grinding to steel blade grinding. Stone taste is stone taste.

The beauty of our wet grinders is, our guys had the brains to incorporate the stone grinding concept into the electrical grinders. The grinding tub/vessel is stainless steel drum that rotates on a base and can be detached and cleaned with ease.  The inner base of the tub is importantly stone. The stone weight is also divided in 2-3 small rolling ones which makes the machine easy to handle and grinding even and quicker. So just like Earth rotates on its own axis at the same time it revolves around the sun, in electrical wetgrinders the steel drum revolves like in an axis while the stones in the drum keep rotating and grinding the rice & dal 🙂 A beauty that never ceases to amaze me! So this is the difference between a blender and the wet grinder. In a blender, the blade rotates but the jar is fixed to the base. In the table-top model, its possible to refrigerate the batter with the grinding tub that comes with lid. No need to transfer to another container. The grinder is thus very user-friendly and easy to maintain. Consumes power like a washing machine, no more. An absolute table-top is a star value addition to your kitchen. Affordable.

I am reserving the recipe for the perfect Idlis & Dosas for later.


Wondering of my family’s reaction to this post. Son: Ma, how much more jobless can you get! Husband: She is a gone case, forget it!!!

Lolz Leaving shortly for zumba and afternoon entire house cleaning scheduled. Busy till late evening. Drizzling/raining from morning, just wanna freak out actually!

Inspiration for this post came from my Guruji who specializes in post mortem theories and evolution histories 🙂 ROFL NONSTOP !!!!


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