It was a beautiful morning. Low mist covered the tall peaks of Nilagiri Mountains at the southernmost tip of India. The sky changed from a gleaming red to a glowing orange as the sun rose. That morning I was driving down with my cousin to Ramasseri, an inconspicuous little village tucked along the Paalakkad Gap. Ahead of us, sprawling over midland-plains and mountainous highlands stretches this twenty-mile wide gap, the largest mountain pass in the mountain ranges that separates my home state Kerala from the rest of India.
Ramasseri’s claim to fame is a simple breakfast dish, soft flat breakfast cakes called Ramasseri idli. Idli is a staple breakfast dish all over south India. These soft, moist, steamed cakes are made with fermented batter made from rice and urad dal (a type of white beans similar to mung beans). They taste salty with a hint of sourness. Various accompaniments served with it enhance its taste. Traditionally idlis are steamed in stacks of Idli plates. What makes Ramasseri idli special is its shape, feather light texture and an earthy aroma acquired from steam cooking in unglazed clay pots. The Mudaliars of Ramasseri are the traditional cooks who prepare this idli. Today restaurants from neighboring towns arrive in this village very early in the morning to collect idlis to sell at their establishments. Somehow restaurants and professional chefs have not mastered the technique of preparing this dish. They still continue to buy them from local homes in this village.
As we drove through the narrow dirt road with rice fields on either side, bright green paddy stalks were waving in the morning breeze. Both palmyra and coconut palms stood tall along the roadside. We passed some bullock carts on the road and we could hear the tinkling of bells tied around the bullocks' necks. Some cart drivers were fast asleep at the helm, trusting their bullocks to pull their carts in the right direction. A few milk vendors, with their tall milk containers tied to their bicycles, were riding along the side of the road. Pretty soon we spotted a small village surrounded by paddy fields. Smoke was wafting out of the thatched roof houses. We had reached Ramasseri.
Our driver pulled up the car close to a small thatched roof house. It was also a take out restaurant. The front yard was swept clean. There was an open veranda in the front with terra cotta tiled floors and whitewashed walls. A few small plain dining tables and wooden benches were arranged neatly in a corner for customers. A middle- aged man opened the door and came out. Sitting in the car, I could hear my cousin explain to him that I have come all the way from America to study his Idli making. From the big grin on his face I knew that he was happy to welcome a visitor from abroad.
The owner invited us to his house/restaurant. Right behind the veranda was a very small kitchen with three wood burning stoves across the back wall. A large pot of idli batter was kept on a small raised platform on one side of the stove. A young woman was in the process of making idli. I watched her as she continued with her work.
She covered eight-inch round clay containers with pieces of wet cotton cloth. Fire logs flickered as they burned under blackened steamer pots. She stirred a large pot of batter vigorously with a ladle. Then poured ladle full of batter on each of the prepared clay steamer containers. She stacked four of them, one over the other, and carefully placed the stack in the steamer. She covered it with another large blackened pot.
By then the idli steaming on the adjacent steamer was ready. She lifted the cover, and slowly removed the stack of clay containers. That is when I noticed that they had hollow bottoms. They were tightly stringed with twine, almost like a tennis racquet. And the piece of cotton cloth was spread over these strings. She placed a large flat jacktree leaf over the idli and slowly turned it upside down. The idli slid off perfectly. She transferred it carefully to a rattan tray lined with fresh banana leaves.
While the other stack was steaming she took a break to speak with me. She said that her family has been in this business for several generations. “These idlis are not as good as the ones my mother and grandmother used to make", she said. “I am not always able to get Paalakkadan Matta - the best rice for making idli". This medium grain rice with a reddish tinge unfortunately has one drawback – its yield is comparatively low. Once the state government started deciding which variety of rice is to be cultivated by farmers, the low yielding Paalakkadan Matta was pushed aside in favor of high yield varieties. Ramasseri idli is now made with other varieties of rice. “It just isn’t same", the cook lamented.
As I started taking pictures, Ramanatha Mudaliar, the man wearing the green baseball cap, joined our conversation. “It is not just the rice" he said “no one hand pounds rice at home any more, and with the huge demand for our idli, we can no longer afford to grind the batter by hand with granite grinding stones". He paused and then posed a profound question "How can milled rice and motorized grinding machines produce superior quality batter?" Mass production had reached even remote Ramasseri.
“Show him the pictures" my cousin nudged. As they watched the tiny pictures on my digital camera their faces were filled with gleam. He asked politely if he could call his neighbors to come and see the pictures. They were just waiting for our nod; two men and a young boy were there within seconds. They suggested, “ Let her take your picture too". “May be you should take off your cap, otherwise your face won’t show" my cousin added. Ramanatha Mudaliar was not ready to show his balding head. “Ok. Ok, I will let her take a picture" he said as he went into the kitchen. I took more photographs.
“Would you mind sharing your recipe", I asked gingerly. Family recipes are never secret in Kerala. People are only too happy to share them. But they firmly believe that the quality of a dish depends on the cook's kaipunyam (god given skill for preparing tasty dishes). She narrated the recipe from memory and I started scribbling on my notepad. “Soak one kilogram of good parboiled rice and hundred grams of urad dal with black skin in separate pots for several hours. Wash and remove the skin of urad dal, and grind it along with a large pinch of fenugreek seeds to a smooth thick batter. Wash and grind the rice separately and combine the two. Add salt to taste and stir well. Cover and set aside, and let the batter ferment overnight".
Then came some very specific instructions. “Do not stack more than four idlis at a time, and steam till they are cooked. Cook them only on wood burning stoves, and always use wood from tamarind tree". May be they burn evenly and maintain steady heat, I wondered silently as she continued with her recipe. “It is ideal to steam in unglazed clay pots, but you may substitute with stainless steel pots". I noticed she was willing to make at least one exception to the unwritten rule of Ramasseri idli making. “And when they are ready, do remove them from the clay steamers with a large leaf from jack tree". She was happy that I was writing down everything.
The second batch of idli was ready and she turned around to remove it from the stove. She packed a steaming batch for us in fresh banana leaves. Ramanatha Mudaliar pulled out a piece of old newspaper and made a cone shaped container effortlessly. With a large coconut shell spoon he scooped up some idli podi (a dry condiment served with idli) into the paper cone and closed it tightly. As they handed us the package she said “Eat them while they are still warm, these idlis are not very soft when they get cold". “If you want to buy clay pots and steamers, there is a store nearby" he added.
We thanked them for their hospitality and my cousin slid two twenty rupees notes (barely a dollar) into his hands. He refused in the beginning, but was glad to accept when we insisted. As we got into the car he had one serious question for me “are you sure you can find good tamarind wood in America?" Tamarind wood logs, Paalakkadan Matta rice, unglazed clay pots, fresh Jacktree leaves – where am I going to find all these things in the United States? I did not have the heart to tell him that. “Thanks a lot. I will certainly try to find it", I muttered as we waved goodbye.