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Beyond Curry: Steamed Indian Lentil and Rice Cakes (Idlis)

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Idlis laced with green chutney and spiced powders [Photograph: Prasanna Sankhe]

In most parts of southern India, idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) are a very popular breakfast dish. The light cakes are made from fermented de-husked black lentils and rice. The lentils and rice are soaked for a few hours, then ground into a very fine batter and left out to ferment overnight.

In the morning, the batter is poured into Idli steamers (usually they have multiple circular layers to fit at least 15 in a batch) and in 15 minutes, they're ready. They emerge light and fluffy, and are devoured in minutes. While the traditional rice and black lentil batter is the basic Idli recipe, it's sometimes dressed up with the addition of sweet and savory ingredients like unrefined sugar or black mustard seeds, ginger, and coriander leaves. The list of things you can add or stuff into the Idli is endless.

Idlis are mild in flavor and are can be eaten with an array of accompaniments, from lentil soups called sambhar to mild chutneys, and also spice powders that are diluted with rich ghee. Each region has it's own beautiful accompaniment to this much loved dish. The first time I thought of making these on my own, I was filled with trepidation. The thought of such a long, overnight process made me a bit nervous. But a successful batch later, I felt confident and quite silly for being intimidated by these delicate white cakes. If you're cooking for two and have a lot of batter left over, store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator and use it whenever you like—it's good for at least a week.

If you don't have an Idli steamer, you can get the same results in a microwave or in a deep plate placed in a Chinese wanton bamboo steamer—just cut the cake that emerges into smaller squares. It's a breakfast worth waking up for.

About the author: Denise Dsilva Sankhe is a writer & creative director by profession. But that's only when she isn't eating her way across India. She recreates this delicious cuisine in her Mumbai home, which she shares with her husband, who has long since given up his determination to have salads for dinner.

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