playing with idli

One of my first posts on the veggie voyager was for a South Indian staple called idli. I have since mentioned idli multiple times, as it is a traditionally gluten free food that is easy to digest and a tasty vehicle for sauces, chutneys and other delicious dishes (usually Indian, I suppose).

A few months ago I invested in an idli steaming pan from our local Indian grocery store. For a while there I was buying premade idli batter, which is sold in plastic tubs. It is an easy, convenient way to have fresh idli at home, but I was curious about learning to make this dish from scratch.

I have since learned that the process is very easy, as long as you think ahead. All you have to do is soak lentils, rice and fenugreek seeds (separately), blend them (separately), combine, and leave overnight to ferment. The resulting bubbly goodness is a tangy batter that can be spooned into the idli pan and steamed up. Idli are tangy, spongy and delicious.


left to right: rice, quinoa, green lentils & chickpeas;
black rice & brown lentils;
brown rice & urud dahl

The other good news is that this batter, if thinned a little bit with water, can be used to make dosa as well, which you all know is a food I love very much. Dosa are a little more difficult to perfect though, as I especially like mine to be paper thin and dry, and the dosa I’ve made at home so far are more spongy  than I like. I am working on it though…


the three batters:soaked, blended and ready to ferment.

Because we like to experiment, we decided to try idli using different types of lentils and pulses. Our three experiments were: brown basmati rice and urud dahl (almost a standard, traditional idli), brown basmati and quinoa with green lentils and green chickpeas, and for the third, black rice and dark brown lentils. To the green version we also added spirulina powder and cilantro. The black rice batter got the addition of fresh ginger. After blending, this one morphed into deep purple.

Each was good. The green ones and the white ones won the contest, although we might not add spirulina again. I liked the purple idli but Ryan was not a fan. Our guests really enjoyed the novelty of the different colors and flavors. The traditional, white batter made the best dosa, followed by the green. As dosa, the purple batter was not quite as successful.

I am a firm believer in the wonders of traditional dishes that happen to be gluten free by virtue of their very existence. One does not need to settle for icky, stiff store-bought GF bread or $15 frozen GF pizzas when there are recipes out there that need no xanthan gum or tapioca starch to make them work for you. The fact that these are fermented is an added bonus: fermentation makes food more easily digestible, nutritious and in my humble opinion, better tasting.

If you’d like to experiment, the proportions remain the same, but the types of beans and grains change. All have fenugreek, which is a common Indian spice. Have fun…be wild! If you don’t already have one, I hope you will add an idli steamer to your kitchen collection, it’s fun to play with…

We invited friends over and enjoyed our idli (and dosa, and rice) with chana masala (chickpeas), baingan bharta (eggplant), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), mango chutney, cilantro chutney, tamarind chutney, and dahi (Indian yogurt). It was a feast fit for royalty. The chana masala was off the hook. I followed the linked recipe to the tee. I highly recommend that you try it.




  • 3 cups rice, or combination of rice and quinoa (brown rice, black rice, red rice, etc all should work)
  • 1 cup dahl or lentils (urud dahl is traditional, but depending on color and flavor you can experiment here)
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds

Put the rice in one bowl, the dahl and fenugreek seeds in another, cover each with water. Soak overnight or for 6-10 hours. Next day, blend the dahl with a small amount of the soaking water until it is smooth, like shampoo. Transfer to a large bowl. Blend the rice up until it is also quite smooth (but not completely) and add it to the dahl mixture. Stir, cover with a towel and leave to ferment overnight. 

In the morning, the batter should be bubbly and tangy smelling. Stir to combine (it will have separated) and place in the fridge until you are ready to use.

Using a paper towel dipped in oil, lightly oil each idli tray. Fill the compartments, stack the tray and place in a large pot with a lid, with about 1 inch of water in the bottom. Cover and steam for 15-20 minutes, or until the centers of the idli are firmed up. Turn off the heat and allow the idli to sit for 20 minutes or so before using a rubber spatula to scoop each idli out of the tray. Arrange on a plate and serve with sambar, chutney or other sauce.

Published by kirstingreen

professional mosaic artist, jewelry designer, cook, expressive arts therapy graduate student & teacher

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