Lunch break has evolved into a bit of a ritual for me, rather than just a cursory 15-minute break from work. Dabbas are opened, a bit of a tussle for the last fork ensues and steaming hot food is laid out on the kitchen counter-top to share. After all what are lunch breaks for, if not to take big bites from your co-workers’ plates? A 15-minute window to swap stories, it’s also a lovely little exchange of culinary traditions. I sampled some delicious Sabudana Khichdi on Monday, a hearty serving of Dal Pakwaan on Wednesday and rounded off the week with an exclamation of delight when I found out I was being treated to Makke Ki Roti aur Saag. Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab, I’d been around the country in 7 big bites and was richer, if also a little heavier, for the experience. A slice of life – quite literally – India’s varied food traditions and lesser-known gastronomical secrets provide unique insight into the country’s equally diverse population. This story is about one elusive idli recipe, five families entrusted with its careful preparation and a two-hundred-year-old heritage.
Named after Ramassery village in North Kerala, these aren’t your average Joe idlis. Earlier, the identity of this village was woven intricately with handloom but today the namesake idlis have reporters and newspapers seeking it out. The legend goes that, close to 200 years ago, some Mudaliar families moved to Ramassery (12 kilometres from Palakkad town) from different parts of Tamil Nadu, seeking fertile land and better job prospects. You see, the men were skilled weavers, while the women could cook up a storm. The matriarch of one of the five remaining Mudaliar families, Bhagyalakshmi, recalls in an interview with The Scroll, “When my in-laws’ ancestors arrived here, they used to pay idlis as wages to the labourers who helped with weaving.” The idli itself looks less like the fluffy variant we’re used to scarfing down with hot sambhar and coconut chutney, and more like a ‘mini dosa’. But owner of Saraswathy Tea Shop, Bhagyalakshmi says that the biggest difference between the two idlis is the way they are cooked. The one from Ramassery is steamed in a steel vessel on wood fire, rather than on a gas stove. “It’s also a bit more fermented than what people are used to,” she says of the idlis that have travelled the world, baffling restaurateurs and chefs alike.
Jeevanandan, owner of Sankar Vilas tea shop and entrusted with the age-old recipe by his father, says “The trick, the taste, of the idlis is in the way we cook them.” While the recipe is freely available, none but members of the Mudaliar families can steam them to perfection each and every time. “There is a popular story among our families that the recipe of the idli and the podi was handed down by an old woman called Chittoori Ammal. I’m not very sure about this. I was married into this family, and ever since I have been making this. I was ‘trained’ by my mother-in-law and the other older women in the family,” Jeevanandan’s mother Rajammal tells The Hindu.
Apart from Bhagyalakshmi and Jeevanandan’s clan, there are only three other families that make these idlis today and they are all related. Respectful of territory with well demarcated markets for each family to occupy, they have prospered courtesy the humble idli. Arun Kumar, resident of Ramassery and guardian of the recipe, makes big batches of this signature staple with his wife. “We have divided who does what. We don’t step on each other’s toes,” says Kumar who is now worried about the legacy he has carried on, thus far. Bhagyalakshmi’s five daughters are married now, while Arun’s children are away, studying. “They’re not interested in making idlis. So I wonder who will make them in the future. We will lose our tradition,” he laments.
A huge blow to the identity of Ramassery, the makers’ of India’s most elusive idli and my food bucket list, the loss of this recipe (and, more importantly, the ‘secret’ cooking technique whispered down from one generation to another) is impending for more reason than one. While these idlis would typically last between three-four days, a reason that they were served as railway food during the British Raj when the earliest trains connected Palakkad to Madurai and Chennai (now Madras), that’s not the case any longer. “At the most it may last a day. The quality of rice has gone down. Earlier, we used to get it from our own fields or buy from those who cultivated rice. Not any longer. The taste starts right from the boiling of paddy itself. In fact, we used to use parts of the husk to make the podi. We now depend on the grocer who chooses the variety of rice we need. We use electric grinders and mixers to make the batter and the podi. This has also affected the quality,” Jeevanandan on the difficulty of maintaining consistency and quality.
Served with two kinds of chutneys and podi (the heady, spicy powder made from pepper, roasted rice, black gram and red chillies), the Ramassery idli is a relic, a reminder and a rarity. Whether it will survive the next two centuries is uncertain but if you find yourself in Kerala, may I recommend hunting it down? Wash it down with a cup of coffee, savour the aroma of history and do what you can to preserve its memory.
Representational image courtesy of The New Indian Express.
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