I love cooking gadgets as much as the next foodie. But because my kitchen is small and my budget limited, I try to curb my enthusiasm by sticking to items that fit one of two criteria: They must offer multiple applications, or the food they’re designed for should be a staple, such as muffins or pizza.
But every now and then, I come across a culinary doohicky that I simply must possess, even if it seems doomed to a life of collecting dust. This happened last month when I forked over $10 for my first idli (pronounced ID-lee) stand.
I have my book club to blame. Or thank. After reading Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes by Indian-born food writer Shoba Narayan, the group decided to discuss the book over a potluck supper where everyone brought a dish prepared with one of the author’s recipes. I volunteered to prepare idlis.
A classic breakfast or snack food in southern India, idlis are round, pillow-shaped, steamed dumplings made from a fermented batter of ground rice and lentils. They are traditionally served hot with fresh coconut chutney and onion sambar (stew) at breakfast or for snacks.
To make authentic idlis, one needs the idli stand.
An oddity in American kitchens and cookware stores, in southern India the idli stand is as common as a muffin pan or toaster. A typical stand has three or four round tiers, 7 to 10 inches in diameter. Each tier has three or four concave depressions where the idli batter is poured. The trays are stacked and secured through a center rod, then placed in a covered pot with just enough boiling water to keep the bottom tray dry.
Two local retailers that carry idli stands are India Market, 3259 S. Winton Road in Henrietta, and India House Store, 999 S. Clinton Ave. There are also numerous online sellers, including a Roswell, Ga., company called Inno Concepts (www.innoconcepts.com).
Variations in styles and size abound. Some versions have pencil-thick holes next to the depressions or needle-thin holes in the molds themselves for better steam circulation. Today’s models are usually made of stainless steel, but you can also find stands with a nonstick coating. There are also idli stands that have miniature depressions the size of oyster crackers.
”It’s really a wonderful gadget,” says Vidya Naganathan, a Xerox software engineer who lives in Webster. ”It is one of the very first things a mom gives her daughter when she leaves the home.”
Naganathan, a native of the Tamil Nadu city of Coimbatore, has been using the same idli stand her mother gave her in 1994, the year she got married and moved to the United States.
While she uses her stand constantly, most of the dishes are Indian, from different types of idlis to paruppusili (a spicy lentil patty that’s crumbled into vegetables) to sweet dessert modaka. Her 2 1/2-year old son loves miniature idlis plain or dropped in soup or a mild rasam (broth) or dal (lentils). Naganathan also uses the top tray of her idli stand to steam vegetables such as carrots and beans while the idlis are on the bottom.
Julie Sahni, author of several Indian cookbooks including the much regaled Classic Indian Cooking (Morrow, $26.95), says the time may be right for idli stands to cross over into American
kitchens. Because people are more interested than ever in learning about healthful eating, ”the concept of steaming is one that Americans are very comfortable with now,” says Sahni in a phone interview from her Brooklyn Heights home.
When eggs were getting a bad rap in the ’80s because of the cholesterol content in the yolks, Sahni devised clever ways to make sure her young son ate a good breakfast every morning. One dish that ”made his eyes light up” consisted of egg whites poached in the idli stand, then filled with sauteed mushrooms and chives. If he craved something sweet, she would use a strawberry filling. ”It looked like a little bun,” Sahni recalls.
Sahni encourages students at her cooking school to fuse ingredients and techniques from different cuisines. For example, Americans can serve idlis like pancakes, with butter and maple syrup. In a single breath she rattles off several global applications for the idli stand. Eastern European cabbage rolls. Greek dolmades. British crumpets. New England Indian pudding. She even uses the idli as a serving piece for nuts or condiments. Sahni is so enamored of the idli stand that she likens it to the human brain. In both cases, she muses, ”The sky is the limit.”
E-mail address: kmiltner@DemocratandChronicle.com
I merged recipes from Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary (Villard, $24.95) and Maya Kaimal’s Savoring the Spice Coast of India (HarperCollins, $30). Urad dal, also called black gram, is a small, oval white legume with a black husk, which is sometimes removed. Cream of rice, or idli rava, is a coarse-ground rice product.
1 cup urad dal
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)
2 cups cream of rice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Put dal and fenugreek in a bowl and cover with warm water by 1 inch. Soak for 2 to 4 hours.
Place soaked, drained dal in a blender with 1 1/4 cups fresh water and process on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes or until the batter flows easily inside the blender and texture feels smooth between your fingers. Add more water if needed.
In a separate large bowl, mix the cream of rice and salt with just enough water to form a paste. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Add urad dal to cream of rice and mix. Cover with plastic and put in a warm place (90 degrees) for 24 hours. A warm oven – or a summer-hot attic – works well. The batter will ferment and rise to about twice its size. It will have a salty, fermented smell and bubbly surface.
When you are ready to steam the idlis, beat in the baking soda. Ladle batter into lightly oiled or nonstick idli stand depressions. Bring an inch of water to boil in a pot large enough to hold the idli stand. Carefully lower stand into pot, cover, and steam for 10 minutes. Remove idlis from stand with a rubber spatula. Repeat until batter is gone. Serve with coconut chutney and onion sambar.
Makes 4 servings.
Beer-Steamed Shrimp, Spuds and Broccoli with Remoulade
This is a quick and easy dinner for one that’s great on a hot day because you only have to use one burner.
For the remoulade:
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (low-fat is fine)
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sweet relish or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/8 teaspoon paprika
pinch of salt (to taste)
For the idli tray:
1 12-ounce can or bottle beer
1/2 cup cider vinegar (optional)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 baby potatoes
1 cup broccoli florets
1/4 to 1/3 pound large (21 to 25 per pound) shell-on raw shrimp
In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, mustard, relish or parsley and paprika; salt to taste. Set aside.
In a pot large enough to hold the idli tray put beer, vinegar, bay leaf and salt. If necessary, top off with enough water to bring liquid to 1 inch. Cover and bring to boil.
While liquid is heating, place potatoes on bottom tier of idli tray. Depending on size and shape, you may have to cut potatoes in half the long way. Just be sure the tray above will be able to fit over potatoes. Place broccoli and shrimp on their own individual trays and set aside.
When liquid starts to boil, carefully lower idli tray with potatoes into pot, using long tongs or potholder. Cover and steam for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are just fork-tender.
Carefully lift idli tray out with tongs. Add the trays with broccoli and shrimp, and screw on nob. Check level of liquid. If it looks low, add boiling water.
Put idli tray back into pot and cover. Steam for another 4 to 7 minutes, or until shrimp is just cooked (the inside should be white) and the broccoli florets are bright green.
Transfer potatoes, shrimp and broccoli to a plate. Stir in 1 tablespoon of cooking liquid to the sauce and serve.
Makes 1 serving.