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Idli, Photo Credits: Hotel Holiday Inn, Gurugram Sector 90

Idli: A saviour for South Indian women during COVID-19

INDIA. Erode, Tamil Nadu: Hundreds of self-made women entrepreneurs work tirelessly at the wholesale Idli Market at Karungalapalayam in Erode Dist of Tamil Nadu in India. Thousands of idlis, a savoury rice cake, and a complete and healthy meal of south India are made throughout the day and sold to hungry souls at almost throwaway prices – 2 plain idlis cost Rs.3.50 (about 0.05 USD) and Rs.6.50 (about 0.10 USD) with condiments.

 Erode Idli Market
Erode Idli Market, Photo Credits: youtube

Idli market – a source of income for women

The idli market came into existence when the womenfolk came out to help men at home who lost work due to the closing down of traditionally weaved cotton cloth factories as synthetic clothes took over some forty years back. Traditional idli making came in handy for these females.

“I grew up watching my mother cook them for breakfast every day,” recalls Shriluxmi Thevar, who learned how to make idlis from her mother, and now is a big name in the idli-making industry. She adds, “You don’t have to be a multimillionaire to start an idli-making business. I started with a small investment, and I am happy that other women in the family also followed me to start an idli business.”

Ms. Meena Iyer also started making idli to contribute towards the household income. Most of these eateries today have women staff taking care of day-to-day activities with men in the family assisting them by getting the necessary groceries and looking after the deliveries.

They supply in bulk for marriages & other family functions too. . A soft puff of rice, idli has high nutritional value and contains no fats, saturated fats, or cholesterol, has only 39 calories per piece of about 30 gm, and provides 40 kcal of energy per serving. Hence, hospitals in the area are also big buyers, as doctors also recommend it for patients.

Business during the pandemic

All over the world, COVID-19 crushed every business entity, small or big. But for these women, it in fact turned out to be a blessing in disguise as delivery parcels picked up. Even today they make idlis in thousands and sell them to a lot of NGOs and other organisations who buy idli packets to feed needy and poor people during lockdowns.

What is an idli

Idli, Photo Credits: Hotel Holiday Inn, Gurugram, Sector 90

Idli is a type of Indian savoury rice cake that is the star of the breakfast tables in South India. It is also relished all over India with sambhar and other condiments, mostly chutneys like tangy coconut chutney, kaara chutney (onion-based), dry chutney, and non-vegetarian spicy fish curries.

Idli invokes human senses with its flavour, its softness, and its fluffiness, says Ms. Aylur – her hands busy in serving idlis on a banana leaf to a customer. The presentation of idli is as impressive as its contents. Placed on a banana leaf or a large serving plate, it looks like a white flattened ball with a fragrant spicy array of colourful chutneys curled around it.

Idli, Photo Credits: TWITTER

Making of Idli

Idli is made by steaming a lightly salted batter consisting of fermented black lentils (a de-husked bean) and polished parboiled rice that gives it a distinct and somewhat sour taste (just like the taste of sourdough bread). The fermented batter is put in greased special perforated idli molds/pans of an idli tray and steamed for 8 -10 minutes to give it fluffiness..

Various spices like fenugreek seeds are normally added to impart a subtle savoury flavor. Other spices like mustard seeds, chili peppers, cumin, coriander, ginger, etc. are also used to add flavours. Sweet versions of idli have also been made sweet by adding sugar. Idli is also made with semolina and this variant is called Rava idli. In western India, you also find regional variants like Sanna.

Origin of Idli

There also are stories about the origin of idlis, and historians have varied views. Food historian K T Achaya in his book The Story of Our Food, says the idli probably arrived in India from Indonesia around 800-1200 CE, some say in Gujarat (from Dhokla), and some give credit to Arab traders who settled on the South Indian coast in medieval times. We also find mentions of idli-like recipes in ancient Kannada language writings as Iddalage and  Iddarika.

Kudumbashree mission

Whatever may be the origin, idli is widely famous as a typical south Indian food. You find idli in all the states in south India, though the preparation and eating styles differ.

George Mathew
George Mathew

Mr. Geroge Mathew, Food & Beverage Manager, Hotel Holiday Inn, Gurugram, sector 90 said, ”In Kerala too, idli is a favourite, and they follow a similar system like Idli Market of Erode, called Kudumbashree, a woman based participatory poverty eradication program that has a dual purpose of women empowerment and poverty alleviation.”

George hails from Kerala and he added, ”Local women join Kudumbashree (meaning “prosperity of the family”) groups and indulge in activities that include idli making and selling. But, here idli is not the sole dish that this network handles; they are involved in a wide range of activities like microfinance, marketing, and gender sensitisation programs, etc.”

George also told team exablogs that the idli batter is more or less the same in all the southern states, the condiments like sambhar and chutneys differ. In Kerala, they make sambhar thicker as compared to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

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