I once thought I knew a bit about Indian food. Back at uni, I regularly dined at those North Indian bain marie joints, and not just on butter chicken – although I have to admit that I always got butter chicken as one of the three selections.
Sometimes I even got lentils. Which I knew were called ‘daal’, because I was a man of the world. Or so I thought.
On other occasions, I even went out for proper, fancy Indian at restaurants where they serve the curries in little metal bowls and there are unlimited pappadams and various pickles on the side.
Years later, I went to India for the first time, and feasted on Goan fish curry, as well as the thali meals, a selection of lots of little curries and other delights on a metal plate, each in its own slot. I even had a favourite vegetarian dish, aloo gobi, which is cauliflower with potatoes. I know now that it’s about the most unsophisticated thing you can order, tantamount to asking for mac and cheese – but back then, I proudly proclaimed it as my thing.
Nowadays, I’m officially Indian by marriage, and a mere 18 months away from getting an Overseas Citizen of India card that will allow me to come and go to that wonderful country whenever I please. So I’ve learned a little more about the many cuisines of the subcontinent. And while I’ve still got a great deal to learn, I know one thing for sure: Australians of every background should eat more idli.
Idli are steamed cakes made with flour that’s a blend of rice and dehusked, fermented lentils. (Aka daal.) They’re somewhat like the steamed white buns you get at yum cha, only savoury and with a less fluffy texture. There’s something of the pancake about them too, and they’re eaten for breakfast in South India, and then subsequently throughout the day as you see fit.
In Chennai, where most of my in-laws live, they’re usually served with a selection of chutneys and a delicious peppery dip known as gunpowder. The idli are delicious even without condiments – with them, they’re sensational.
I’ll never forget the first time my mother-in-law served me idli. We were sitting around in their lounge room, playing with my now-nephew, when they were brought out. And they just kept coming, freshly steamed each time, and I just kept eating them.
By the end of the meal, I must have been approaching 30 per cent idli by body mass. From one perspective, I was being polite and eating what I was served, but from another, I was gorging myself on my new favourite food. It’s rare that manners and absolute greed align so deliciously.
What I’ve belatedly learned is that what most Australians think of as “Indian” food, with curries and basmati rice, hails from the north. In the south, it’s more about breads – from the incredible thin pancakes known as dosai, to the slightly thicker pizza/pancake-like uttapam to idli’s doughnut-like fried cousin, the vada. Roti, as also featured in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine, is also very common, and they’re all served with far more dip options than you could ever exhaust.
Unfortunately, while every food court has a joint that sells tandoori chicken, the delights of South Indian cuisine are hard to find in Australia. The global powerhouse of Chennai-style food is called Hotel Saravana Bhavan (I’m not sure where the ‘Hotel’ comes from), which has 85 outlets around the world, all of them vegetarian. It opened in Parramatta in 2014, while a Victorian outpost is on the way too – I fully expect them to cover Australia within a decade. I’ve been to branches in Chennai, Kuala Lumpur and here, and can report that the global standardisation of their menu is as consistent as any burger chain.
There are other restaurants serving idli in the Indian restaurant strip in Harris Park, which my wife and I plan to explore soon, while I’ve heard tales of excellent options in Melbourne as well. And while I suspect that idli might be the South Indian version of mac and cheese in terms of the degree of culinary complexity – well, mac and cheese is popular for a reason.
I highly advise everyone to try one of the tastiest all-day breakfast options I’ve ever sampled (or you could trymaking your own). But if you don’t go to seek out idli, rest assured that idli will come to you sometime soon. I’ve no doubt that before much longer, they’ll be found in shopping malls, hotel breakfast buffets and elsewhere in our increasingly globalised culture. Because idli are too delicious not to conquer the world. And did I mention that they’re supposed to be healthy?