AskDefine | Define idly

Dictionary Definition

idly adv : in an idle manner; "this is what I always imagined myself doing in the south of France, sitting idly, drinking coffee, watching the people" [syn: lazily]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. In an idle manner.
  2. Without specific purpose, intent or effort.
    I idly played with the paper, not even realizing I was folding it into a paper airplane.

Extensive Definition

The idli (IPA:ɪdlːi), also romanized "idly" or "iddly", is a savory cake popular throughout South India. The cakes are usually two to three inches in diameter and are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice.
Most often eaten at breakfast or as a snack, idli are usually served in pairs with chutney, sambar, or other accompaniments. Mixtures of crushed dry spices such as milagai podi are the preferred condiment for idlis eaten on the go.


Although the precise history of the modern idli is unknown, it is a very old food in southern Indian cuisine. One mention of it in writings occurs in the Kannada writing of Shivakotiacharya in 920 AD, and it seems to have started as a dish made only of fermented black lentil. A document from circa 1025 A.D. states that lentils were soaked in buttermilk, ground into meal, then seasoned with black pepper, coriander, cumin and asafoetida.
The Kannada king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, the Manasollasa, written in Sanskrit ca. 1130 A.D. There is no known record of rice being added until some time in the 17th century. It may have been found that the rice helped speed the fermentation process. Although the ingredients used in preparing idli have changed, the preparation process and the name have remained the same.
While idlis (Tamil இட்டிலி, ittili) are ubiquitous in the state of Tamil Nadu, historical research shows that idli technology was likely imported into Tamil Nadu from south-east Asia, perhaps via Karnataka (judging from the numerous references in medieval Kannada literature, and the conspicuous absence of any references in Tamil literature of the corresponding era).


To make idli, two parts uncooked rice to one part split black lentil (Urad dal) are soaked. The lentils and rice are then ground to a paste in a heavy stone grinding vessel (attu kal). This paste is allowed to ferment overnight, until it expands to about 2½ times its original volume. In the morning, the idli batter is put into the ghee-greased molds of an idli tray or "tree" for steaming. These molds are perforated to allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done (about 10-25 minutes, depending on size). The idli is somewhat similar to the dosa, a fried preparation of the same batter.
In the olden days, when the idli mold cooking plates were not popular and unavailable, the thick idli batter was poured on a cloth tightly tied on the mouth of a concave deep Cooking pan or tava half filled with water. A heavy lid was placed on the pan and the pot kept on the boil until the batter was cooked into idli. This was often a large idli depending on the circumference of the pan. It was then cut into bite-size pieces and eaten.

Contemporary Idlis and variations

Southern Indians have brought the popular idli wherever they have settled throughout the world. Cooks have had to solve problems of hard-to-get ingredients, and climates that do not encourage overnight fermentation. One cook noted that idli batter, foaming within a few hours in India, might take several days to rise in Britain. The traditional heavy stones used to wet-grind the rice and dal are not easily transported. Access to Indian ingredients before the advent of Internet mail order could be virtually impossible in many places. Chlorinated water and iodized salt interfere with fermentation.
Newer "quick" recipes for the idli can be rice- or wheat-based (rava idli). Parboiled rice, such as Uncle Ben's can reduce the soaking time considerably. Store-bought ground rice is available, or Cream of Rice may be used. Similarly, semolina or Cream of Wheat may be used for rava idli. Yoghurt may be added to provide the sour flavor for unfermented batters. Prepackaged mixes allow for almost instant idlis, for the truly desperate. Idli Burger is another variation that can be made easily.
Besides the microwave steamer, electric idli steamers are available, with automatic steam release and shut-off for perfect cooking. Both types are non-stick, so a fat-free idli is possible. Table-mounted electric Wet grinders may take the place of floor-bound attu kal. With these appliances, even the classic idlis can be made more easily.
The plain rice/black lentil idli continues to be the popular version, but it may also incorporate a variety of extra ingredients, savory or sweet. Mustard seeds, fresh chile peppers, black pepper, cumin, coriander seed and its fresh leaf form (cilantro), fenugreek seeds, curry leaves (neem), fresh ginger root, sesame seeds, nuts, garlic, scallions, coconut, and the unrefined sugar jaggery are all possibilities. Filled idlis contain small amounts of chutneys, sambars, or sauces placed inside before steaming. Idlis are sometimes steamed in a wrapping of leaves such as banana leaves or jackfruit leaves.
A variety of idlis are experimented these days, namely, standard idli, mini idlis soaked in sambar, rava idli, Kancheepuram idli, stuffed idli with a filling of potato, beans, carrot and masala, ragi idli, pudi idli with the sprinkling of chutney pudi that covers the bite-sized pieces of idlis, malli idli shallow-fried with coriander and curry leaves, and curd idli dipped in masala curds.

Picture gallery

: Idli soaked in sambar. Chutney is the best companion for this dish.


  • Achaya, K. T. (1994) Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-563448-9
  • Devi, Yamuna (1987) Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, Dutton ISBN 0-525-24564-2
  • Jaffrey, Madhur (1988) A Taste of India, Atheneum ISBN 0-689-70726-6
  • Rau, Santha Rama (1969) The Cooking of India, Time-Life Books

External links

idly in German: Idli
idly in Spanish: Idli
idly in Kannada: ಇಡ್ಲಿ
idly in Malayalam: ഇഡ്ഡലി
idly in Polish: Idli
idly in Tamil: இட்லி
idly in Telugu: ఇడ్లీ
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