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A Game of 'Idlis'

It has all the makings of a light summer meal, but how does one steam out the goodness from the famous Southern delicacy? Consultant nutritionist Niti Desai gives in the scoop.


By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Sarasvathy TK

When it comes to food, few things work up an appetite (even a craving) like the good old Idli – the famous posterboy of south Indian cuisine. And for good reasons, says Chef Dhiraj Dargan (Executive Chef, Comorin), “Idli is light, good for the gut and given its slow GI levels can satiate you instantly making portioning easy. But where it really aces is its taste profile and ability to marry with different condiments. Think about it, idli though classically paired with sambar and an array of chutneys work equally well when lightly tempered and even compliments the classic garlic chutney that is served with vada pav.”

In fact, continues Chef Dargan, “it is one of the few fermented dishes that can be enjoyed just like that but can be hugely experimented with bringing newer facets to the agrarian community classic. Take for instant, the stuffing. Idli can take on a wide variety of vegetable puree to even potato stuffing in between the layers turning it into a dish that can be designed on whim.”

Its versatility and easy-to-adapt taste may have given idli its popularity, a lot of its existence in home across India (and abroad) is also due to the lightness of the dish. At 40 calorie a piece, it is a diner’s joy – both looking out for calories and otherwise- and makes for a wonder meal for those with serious lifestyle condition. As a matter of fact, idli, says seasoned nutritionist Niti Desai, “is amongst the dishes that are often recommended by doctors and nutritional therapist to a variety of patients for two very important reasons: One, because it is almost oil free (the amount that goes in basting the moulds are too little for any serious effect); and two, each calorie in an Idli is accounted for in the body. Idli in fact is replete with microorganism that help in reducing reduction of harmful phytates and enhanced nutrient profile, with increased content of vitamin C, vitamin B (thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid), as well as protein. All this while ensuring the body thermal barometers are under control, thus, ensuring no acid reflux or case of acidity.”

But that’s not all there is to the humble idli, whose batter is a classic case of natural leavening that gives that palate lightness to the dish. The dish, adds Desai, “main objective is the creation of riboflavin and thiamine in the necessary amount so as to aid digestion and enhancing immunity by regulating not just the production of red blood cells in the body, but also helping digest protein by breaking it into fast acting protein, which takes about two hours to digest and complex protein (which has a good amount of fat intertwined with it) that takes about two days to digest like meat.”

This scenario, says Desai, “is in ideal condition where the batter has the right proportion of parboiled rice and urad dal – a research done by food technologist on Idli batters found that the  3:1 ratio of parboiled rice and urad dal for the batter is richer in Vitamin B content than the traditionally followed 2:1 and 4:1 batter ratios – consistency, traditional style of steaming it and classic pairing, which is with sambar if you want to turn it into a proper filling meal and with chutney or rasam if you just want a snack. Anything removed from this and idli too can have the potential of turning not just into a high calorie snack (hint: Rava Idli) but can loose the basic, quick result effectiveness it was traditional designed for.

So how does one really work out the goodness and idli? With purposeful pairing, says Desai as she notes down the basic rule of a good meal:

Keep it Classics: One of the best ways to have idli is with a podi. The reason behind is podi traditionally were made both as a tastemaker and digestive, and hence is idle way to go ahead. The ghee/coconut oil used in podi, especially the all-popular gunpowder works not just to kickstart the digestive juices also is good for the brain. This is when the meal is approximately around 40-47kcal and ideal as a light snack.

Thoughtful addons:  Idli with sambar and chutney is a standard order. And it is one of the best format work meals too, given that together the trio make for a balanced thali with sambar bringing in the right amount of complex protein, vitamins, fibre, antioxidants while the chutneys compensate with essential saturated fat, high fibre and other nutrients. Luckily, even the restaurant levels, especially that of a UDUPI, fits a nutritionist bill of a healthy diet, one or two idlis (depending on their size) give or take. But go overboard with any one of the accompaniments and its trouble brewing, says Desai,  who advocates a melange of at least two chutneys if “idli-chutney” is your idea of a light meal. Putting two taste-wise parallel chutneys – for instance coconut chutney with a tomato or coriander based one – not just brings in a different palate play but also balances the nutritive palate for the body, thus ensuring effective digestion and quick energy release.

And yet, continues the expert, if there is a need to experiment for a change of taste, then head towards complex proteins and carbohydrate choices like instead of sambar try the vegetable stew or a fish curry that digests faster. Choose, says Chef Dargan, “a bony fish as it comes with extra benefits of Vitamin A, B and C along with omega 3 fatty acids and is a protein that gets digested the same day ensuring a constant supply of energy.”

For meat lovers, says Desai, “try going for leaner cuts and good portioning and remember to eat with the classic version of the idli.” But if adventure calls, then having a rava idli or one with millet and vegetables is much recommended and pair it with a podi for taste.

The golden rule of, concludes Desai, “a  working meal is to always pair a quick-digesting protein or carbohydrate with a complex version with low glycemic index accompanied with enough fibre, fat and vitamins in form of greens, fruits and nuts to enable to the body to utilise the riboflavin and thiamine released to optimum levels – or in others having this constant burst of energy.”