Rava Idli

By Published On: 4 Feb '22Last Updated: 14 Apr '24

Rava Idli is a South Indian breakfast staple and much loved world-over. These basic idlies are close to my heart as they taste just like a real idli.

Rava Idli

what is an idli and where did it originate?

Idli is a pillow like steamed savoury cake which is a popular South Indian breakfast or an all day snack. It is made with a fermented batter of rice and urid dhal (split black lentils which are actually white when purchased as their husks are removed). The urid dhal comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, with husk and without husk, whole and split. Idlies are usually served with a bowl of piping hot sambhar (watery soup of spiced dhal and vegetables) and a tangy coconut chutney. Idlies are eaten for lunch and dinner also. I reckon South Indian breakfast staples like Idli and Rava Idli have gained universal appeal and are here to stay for generations to come.

Growing up in a Catholic home, idli breakfast was a luxury and an all-too-rare delicacy. When I was posting the Mangalorean Sannas recipe in my cookbook 'Deliciously Indian', my designer at the time looked at the photos and said 'we have these in Indonesia also but they are somewhat different to yours'. Her comment intrigued me and although I was totally curious, I did not take up the challenge of investigating why she made that comment.

Writing the blog for this recipe gave me the impetus to finally carry out a little research into idlies and I am happy to share what the experts had to say about this humble breakfast staple. The people of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu claim that the idlies were invented by them. But hey! according to experts, there are references to making and the existence of idlies since the 8th century. Interesting!! Listen, then there is more, you will be surprised to know that there are claims that idlies did not originate in South India at all. Some food historians believe that the idli was derived from some steamed rice preparations from Indonesia. Dah! now the penny dropped why she made that comment!! It is believed that this recipe was invented by the cooks of the Hindu kings who ruled some parts of Indonesia. Voila!! Wait till I tell this news to my designer!!

While I was convincing myself that it was originated from Indonesia, then came further contradictory claims that the idli was introduced to South India by the Arab traders who had constant contact with the Southern Coast. Whether it was derived from the steamed rice preparations of Indonesia or introduced by the Arab traders, I am glad we have a delicious savoury cake that all who like it can enjoy universally. Even many Australians I know go specially to Indian snack places to buy this fluffy round steamed savoury cakes called 'Idli'.

memory lane in udupi

Some childhood memories really do endure. One of my earliest memories takes me back to a small hotel five minutes away from my home (if I can vaguely recall, it was called Krishna Hotel). This gentleman owned a restaurant on one side and a small shop on the other side where he sold lollies and other savoury snacks. He was famous at that time, as many people would go to his hotel early in the morning to have idli sambhar and when they exited, some would also buy some of his beedies or cigarettes.

Whenever me and my siblings longed for a 'Happy Breakfast', my mum bought idlies from Krishna Hotel as it was the closest to home. When the idlies came, they were steaming hot (thanks to the hot Indian weather, the heat keeps the food hot for longer!!) wrapped in a banana leaf with a big blob of coconut chutney all stuck to the idlies and a bowl of fiery brown sambhar made with dhal and vegetables.

When she got home to the joy of her young children, she would quickly undo the banana leaf (oh! we were always hungry when we were growing up!!) and we would all share the idlies and the accompaniments. I would first tear the idlies into pieces and place them in a stainless plate, and just next to it I would serve a little blob of coconut chutney. Next, I would pour some of that delicious fiery sambhar on top of my idlies and begin squishing the idlies alternatively with chutney and sambhar with my fingers. These were the idlies which would absorb whatever you ate with them, be it chutney or Sambhar. Then I would push the resulting soggy and brown morsels quickly into my mouth, while the other morsel was getting ready!! Raise your hands if you think this was a very familiar idli eating ritual then and now!!!

Occasionally, my mum also made basic idlies at home but she made the sannas (soft, light rice and lentil cakes) more often than idlies.

IDLI -V- SANNAS

Idlies and sannas are very different snacks. The ingredients and the method of making them are similar however, there is a variation between the two.

The basic ingredients for the idli are rice and urid dhal and they are prepared by the steaming method. The interesting thing is, although all idlies look somewhat similar, their ratio changes from household to household and state to state. Their texture also varies depending on what grain is used in place of rice.

The basic ingredients for the sannas are also rice and urid dhal and they are also made with a fermented batter of rice and a small proportion of urid dhal (split white lentils) however, the distinctive feature of sannas is, they have added yeast into them to aid fermentation as the ratio of urid dhal to rice is small compared to idlies. The resultant texture of the sannas is very different to the texture of basic idlies. Sannas are soft and light but idlies are dense and harder than sannas. In Mangalore, sannas are fermented with toddy (type of palm wine that is produced from the sap of the palm tree in South India) however, as toddy is not available in western countries, they are fermented with a combination of yeast and urid dhal.

Basic Idlies - dense and heavy

Sannas - light and fluffy

There are numerous modern-day adaptations to the basic idli eg., instant rava idlies, poha idlies (beaten rice), ragi idlies, oats idlies, instant ragi idlies (millet), mallipoo idli, podi idli ('mini idlies tossed in ‘gun powder’ (ground chilli), cucumber idlies, thatte idli (steamed in large flat stainless-steel saucers, unique to the Kannada people) just to name a few. Then there are the classical idli variations such as the Kanchipuram idlies (tempered with black pepper and coconut) and Ramasserry Idli (a flat and soft idli from the Palakkad region of Kerala).

The idlies that I have made today are a basic idli and, bear a striking resemblance to the ones I ate as a kid in my neighbourhood restaurant (called as 'hotel’ at the time and even now). They are soft but dense and have a slight creamy tinge due to the use of urid dhal in the batter. The texture is porous and will easily absorb the delicious sambhar and chutney. Besides, its done with only 3 ingredients – urid dhal (split white dhal), sooji/rava/semolina and salt.

My idlies are made with a batter of urid dhal and a little rava/sooji or coarse semolina. The urid dhal is first soaked till soft. Then blended to a paste with water to form a thick batter. Left to stand at room temperature for a couple of hours. Then, lightly roasted semolina is added to the urid dhal batter and set aside for the semolina to soak up. Once soaked up, the batter is ready to be steamed into idlies.

I use my idli cooker to steam my idlies. You can also use your traditional style idli steamer if you do not have a idli cooker (image below).

They are simple enough to make at home and taste like the real thing of the 70s and 80s! The modern and convenient adaptations taste delicious yet quite different to the basic idli.

I hope all of you will enjoy making these idlies.

Happy cooking!

HOW TO MAKE THE IDLI BATTER

The batter for this recipe is very easy to make as there are only 3 main ingredients. Yes, only 3 ingredients! So let's get ready!!

Wash the urid dhal (split black gram) in a couple of changes of water and soak for 2 hours with plenty of water. Soaking makes it easier to blend. Drain water completely.

Urid dhal (split unhusked black gram) before soaking

Soaked and drained urid dhal

Transfer the drained dhal to a blender or similar appliance. I use my 'Preethi blender' or 'Breville heavy duty blender". They both work well. You can use any blender that works well for you.

'Preethi' blender used to blend the soaked urid dhal

'Breville Heavy Duty blender' also works well. Use the 'Blend cycle' and blend for 3 minutes with 1 minute intervals. Stir with spatula during intervals for uniform blending.

Add 1½ - 1¾ cup water and salt to the blender. Stir gently with a spatula to combine the water with the dhal. It helps the blades to rotate. Blend to a smooth paste for approximately 3 minutes with 1 minute intervals. Remove the batter on to a deep bowl. Cover and rest the batter for 2 hours.

While the batter is resting, heat a heavy based frying pan on medium and dry roast the sooji/rava/coarse semolina for 3 minutes or until you see fine tendrils of smoke rising to the surface, stirring constantly. Do not burn. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate to cool for 10 minutes. The semolina in the image below looks like fine semolina but this is sold as 'Coarse Semolina' both in the supermarkets and the Indian grocery shops.

Sooji/Rava/Coarse semolina

Dry roasting - Sooji/Rava/Coarse semolina

Once the semolina has cooled, add it to the dhal batter and add 1½ - 1¾ cup water. Mix well to combine. Season if required. I like to beat this batter with my hand for 2 minutes to put some air into it. It improves the texture of the idlies, so do not skip this step. This batter does not need fermenting however, we need to rest the batter for 30 minutes so the semolina can soak well.

HOW TO STEAM THE IDLIES

Idlies can be steamed in an idli cooker or a traditional idli steamer (thondor). Both methods yield good results.

Idli Cooker with a lid

Traditional style idli steamer (thondor) with a lid

If you are using an Idli Cooker, do the following:

I have what I like to fondly call an ‘Idli tree’ known as Idli Cooker. Thanks to my cousin who so kindly gifted me this tree a few months back (I have never owned one as I am terribly lazy to go looking for one!!) and now I am the proud owner of a 4-tiered idli cooker and each tier has 4 molds. In other words, the tree has tiered molds that fit into a pot (idli cooker) and make it a breeze to cook as many as 16 idlies simultaneously. Oh! a blessing for the idli lovers!! First, remove the tree (tiers) from the cooker. To separate the tiers, remove the black screw cap from the rod (as shown in the right image below) which is in the centre of the assembly. Remove only the screw cap and not the rod. Removing the rod will make it difficult to place the tiers back when you pour the batter and will most likely dent the idlies. No one likes dented idlies in my house:)

While the batter is resting, lightly grease the molds with ghee, keeping a little ghee behind for the next batch. Add two cups of water to the cooker and place on medium heat. Bring to the boil and keep the water on boil while you are filling the idli molds. Spoon 4 tbsp. of batter into each mold. Insert the tiers on to the rod and pop the black screw cap on. Carefully lower the tiers into the cooker and close the cooker lid. Steam for 8-10 minutes per batch. Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes.

Do not open the cooker lid for 10 minutes when it is resting, as it is dangerous to open when the water is at a boiling point inside. The cooker lid will open comfortably when all the steam has escaped.

After 10 minutes, open the lid and remove the tiers. Stand for 5 minutes for the idlies to cool slightly. Once cooled, run a knife around the edges of the idlies in a clockwise motion and scoop out the idlies.

Wash the molds well with warm soapy water ensuring there is no debris. Dry them well with kitchen towel. Grease lightly with the remainder ghee. Spoon 4 tbsp. of batter into molds, bearning in mind that this quantity of batter will yield about 28-30 idlies. You may have some empty molds but that's ok. Steam for 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat and stand for 10 minutes before you open the cooker lid. Scoop idlies out. In the image above, I have added a little shredded carrot on the bottom of the molds for a bit of colour. This is however optional.

If you are using a traditional Indian style idli steamer, then see NOTES below for steaming instructions.

I hope you enjoy eating these idlies as much as me and my family does!!

serving suggestions

To serve the idlies, place 3 or 4 idlies in the centre of a deep plate. Pour sambhar all around and some on top. I enjoy eating them in hand, by squishing them and breaking them into bits and mixing them with the sambhar. They are delicious and melt in the mouth as they absorb the sambhar perfectly.

You can also eat them only with Red Coconut Chutney if you are not a fan of sambhar. Dunk bits of idli into the chutney and pop it straight into your mouth.

You can also eat them as a combo of idlies, sambhar, chutney, as this is the most traditional way to enjoy them. First take a bite of the idli dunked in chutney. Then dunk the idli in the Sambhar. Pop it into your mouth along with that soupy sambhar. Then drink a sip of Masala Coffee or Masala Tea. Totally homely, totally idilicious, totally nostalgic!!!

If you have tried this recipe, I would love to hear your feedback. Please be sure to rate the recipe and/or leave a comment below. If you want to see more recipe inspirations, you can follow me on Instagram @lavina_mendonsa.

Rava Idli

Catherine Lavina Mendonsa
Idlies are a rich and authentic Southern Indian breakfast staple and are much loved world-over. Traditionally served on a banana leaf with sambhar and chutney, these basic idlies are made with a batter of urid dhal (split black gram dhal) and sooji/rava or coarse semolina. With all the modern adaptations to an idli, these Rava Idlies are made without rice and still hold a special place in my heart, as they are the idlies that taste like the real basic idli of my childhood.
Prep Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Standing time plus steamer cooling time 2 hours 30 minutes
Total Time 5 hours 25 minutes
Course All day snack, Breakfast, Morning Tea, Snacks
Cuisine Indian, South Indian
Servings 6

Equipment

  • Blender or similar appliance, Idli cooker, deep glass bowl, platter to place steamed idlies

Ingredients
  

  • 250 g urid dhal/black gram (split dehusked white lentils)
  • tsp. salt or to taste
  • 1½ - 1¾ cup water
  • 300 g sooji/rava or coarse semolina
  • 2 tsp. ghee for greasing the idli molds

Instructions
 

  • Wash the dhal well under cold running water till water runs clear. Soak in plenty of water for 2 hours. Soaking makes blending easier.
  • Drain water completely. Add to the blender along with salt and blend to a smooth paste with 1½-1¾ cup water. Remove paste into a deep bowl and cover with the lid or cling wrap. Rest the batter for 2 hours.
  • While the batter is resting, heat a heavy based frying pan on medium and dry roast the sooji/rava for 3 minutes or until you see fine tendrils of smoke rising to the surface. Do not burn the sooji/rava. Cool for 10 minutes. Add to the ground urid dhal batter and add 1½ cup water. Stir well to combine. Beat the batter with your hand for 2 minutes to put some air into the batter. Season to taste, if required. Set aside for 30 minutes. This batter does not need to ferment however, the sooji/rava needs to be soaked.
  • For steaming the idlies, remove the tiers from the idli cooker and pour 2 cups of water. Bring the water to the boil and keep it on boil. Seperate the tiers by removing the black screw top. Do not remove the rod in the centre. Grease the molds lightly with ghee. Spoon about 4 tbsp. batter into each mold. In the images I have put a teaspoon of shredded carrot on the bases of some molds. This is optional. Gently insert the tiers on to the rod one by one and then pop the screw top back on. Carefully place the tiers into the cooker. Secure the lid and steam for 8-10 minutes per batch or until cooked through. Overcooking will render the idlies hard.
  • Remove the cooker from heat and wait for 8-10 minutes or until all the steam has released naturally. Do not open the cooker lid for 10 minutes as it is dangerous to open when the water is at a boiling point inside. Once all the steam has escaped, you will be able to open the lid comfortably.
  • Open the lid carefully, remove the tiers from the cooker. Stand for 5-10 minutes to cool slightly. Now remove the screw top and separate the tiers. To remove the idlies, run a knife around the edges of the idli in a clockwise motion and scoop the idli.
  • Once you scoop all the idlies, you must wash the molds clean to prepare the second batch, failing which, the idlies will stick to the molds. Wash the molds with warm soapy water ensuring that there is no debris left and dry the moulds completely. Spray the molds lightly with oil or any remainder ghee.
  • To steam the second batch, add another 1 cup water to the existing water in the cooker and bring to the boil. Fill the molds as in Step 4, assemble the tiers and place in the cooker. Close the cooker lid and steam for 8-10 minutes or until cooked. Stand for 10 minutes before opening and scoop out the idlies as in Step 6.

Notes

  1. If you are using a traditional Indian style idli steamer (thondor) then, add 2 litres of water to the steamer. Place on medium heat and bring to the boil. While the water is heating, grease the idli molds with ghee or a light spray of oil. Once the water is boiling, place the perforated lid into the steamer. Pour about ½ cup batter into each mold, and steam in batches for 8 minutes or until cooked. You may need to steam in 2, 3 or 4 batches, depending on the size of your idli steamer. As there is no pressure in the traditional style idli steamers, you can use fabric gloves and carefully open the steamer lid once the idlies are cooked.  Scoop the idlies by running a knife around the edges of the idli.  
Keyword Rava Idlies, semolina, Sooji