A 200-year-old culinary secret of this flat idli, revealed
A 200-year-old culinary secret makes the soft, flat Ramasserri idli unique among South Indian dishes
For about 200 years it has been happening. Then, the women of the family would sit on the floor, rotating a heavy grinding stone for hours in a hollowed granite block until the soaked mixture of rice and shorn lentil rose up to a frothing white batter. With practised sweeps of their hands, they would swipe the churning curls of the mixture back into the grindstone until it became one smooth paste. Now, the batter rises and swirls in a grinder that churns out kilos of idli batter all day long at the Saraswati Tea Stall, in Ramaserri village of Palakkad district in Kerala.
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Their USP is that unlike all other idlis, they are flat. The owners of the establishment, Smitha and Vijay Kumar, both 52, are up at 4 every morning to begin the work their ancestors started. The steamer doesn’t stop until 9 at night. Kumar’s family is one among four others—all from the Mudaliar community—which makes the famous idlis. While Kumar runs the small eatery, the other three families are caterers who supply the idlis for weddings and other events.
Though the tradition may be two centuries old, Saraswati Tea Stall was started by Kumar’s grandmother Bhagyalakshmi Amma only six decades ago. Her idlis were so famous that people came from all over the district to taste them. The tea stall has today put the district firmly on Kerala’s food map. Made exclusively with locally grown rice that adds sponginess to the idlis, the flat, snow-white pieces are eaten with sambar and a spicy powder locally called ‘gunpowder’; non-vegetarians can order chicken curry to go with the idlis. “Rajinikanth and Mammootty have eaten our idlis,” says Kumar proudly.
A couple of centuries ago, members of the Mudaliar community travelled from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu to Palakkad in search of livelihood. They were weavers, and had invented the flat idlis, which didn’t go bad for at least four days and hence could be eaten on the way. The community settled in Ramaserri, but their business failed to take off. Not ones to give up so easily, they changed their weaving career and became idli makers who catered to farm labourers.
Had they been alive, they would wonder at the long queues of cars waiting outside the Saraswati Tea Stall every day to buy the flat delicacies. “It’s just become a thing you do when you are in Palakkad,” says Kurush Dalal, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. “What adds to the charisma of the idli is its flat shape and the oft-debated question: is it an idli or a dosa?” he adds.
Being an entrepreneur, Kumar understands that though the village is a tourist attraction for the Ramaserri idlis, the challenge is to spread awareness about the specialty. The husband-wife team regularly travels to different destinations and puts up stalls, which sell the idlis. A second restaurant, Madura Café, reopened in Guruvayur in April 2022 after shutting down due to the lockdown. “The idlis are made with local Palakkad rice, black gram, fenugreek, sea salt and two secret ingredients,” says Kumar with an air of mystery.
The manner in which the idlis are made is the key to its unique taste and fluffiness. They are steamed on tamarind wood-fired stoves and earthen pots. The batter is spread on a muslin cloth, placed on a net above the steaming pot, and is covered with another pot so that the idli cooks in the steam trapped within. “It is the vapours that make the idli moist,” says chef Regi Matthew of the gourmet Kappa Chakka Kandhari restaurant in Bengaluru and Chennai.
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They serve the Ramaserris, which Matthew discovered on his culinary research tour across Kerala. He even convinced some members of the Mudaliar community to relocate to Chennai and Bengaluru to make the idlis. On World Idli Day which falls on March 30, it’s worth remembering that you can take the Mudaliar out of Ramaserri, but you cannot take Ramaserri out of the Mudaliar.