During one of my visits to Palakkad, I made a detour from the customary tourist itinerary and embarked on a culinary sojourn to the nondescript village of Ramassery, the land of dosa-like idlis in Palakkad district.
But for these idlis, this tiny hamlet sans any religious or historical attraction would have remained in obscurity on the tourist map of Kerala.
It is this special delicacy which has taken the fame of this tiny village across the boundaries of the state.
A plate of heavenly idlis.
I headed to Saraswathy Tea Stall run by Bhagyalakshmi, sister-in-law of Saraswathiamma. I had a taste of these idlis which are unique in size, shape and taste.
They are flat, similar to a dosa in shape and only half an inch thick. They melted in my mouth and left me craving for more. It’s not surprising, I thought, that these soft, fluffy idlis have catapulted the village to fame.
An interesting feature of these idlis is that they are steam-cooked in unglazed earthen pots which are arranged in a unique three-tiered manner and cooked only on a stove using wood from a tamarind tree.
Saraswathy Tea Stall
It is fascinating to watch these idlis being steam cooked in the searing heat of the woodstove. The kitchen turned smoky as the women churned out 100 idlis in an hour!
Here’s how they made those magical idlis:
Three eight-inch round clay containers are covered with pieces of wet cotton cloth. A ladle full of batter is poured on each of the prepared clay steamer containers. These are then stacked one over the other, and carefully placed in the steamer. The steamer is then covered with another blackened pot. Once cooked, the idlis are served hot on banana leaves with chutney.
Idlis cooked on wooden stove.
The earthy aroma adds to the taste of these idlis. Their USP is that they can be preserved for two or three days in moderate climates.
Served with sambar, a fiery coconut chutney and delicious ‘gunpowder’, it makes for a unique experience. These steamed delicacies melt in your mouth and make sure you don’t stop at one.
Idlis served with 'gunpowder'.
Though made of rice and split pea lentils, just like idlis, the proportion of the cereals and the consistency of the batter are different. The recipe is a trade secret, having been passed down from generation to generation within a family.
The genesis of these idlis can be traced to the Mudaliar community of weavers who migrated from Tamil Nadu and settled down in Ramassery.
When their business was in the doldrums, the women of the house started making idlis for sale. The men went around with baskets of idlis, trying to sell the product. It was difficult making any kind of profit, considering the low cost of the wares and the fact that there was only a limited area they could cover.
But as more people began to buy the idlis, a tea stall was set up. When the family grew larger, more eateries sprung up.
Currently there are four such stalls. The daily sales range from 500 to 2000 pieces per day. On festive occasions, the demand shoots up to 15,000 idlis a day! This unique delicacy is also a must on the menu of every wedding party. Restaurants from neighbouring places and towns also come here to collect their orders.
Idlis being cooked on gas stove.
As the making of Ramassery idlis is labour intensive and physically taxing, most of the families making them have resorted to using the gas stove. Hence the quality of the end product has suffered.
Lamenting on the dip in the quality of the idlis, Bhagyalakshmi says, "The taste is lost now and the shelf-life reduced due to fertilisers and pesticides used for growing rice."
The Ramassery idli may not be what it used to be. But even if the taste has gradually declined, its fame remains untouched thanks to its quaint history.
Susheela Nair is a Bengaluru-based food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer who has contributed articles, content and images to reputed national publications, portals, travel guides and coffee table books. The courtesy for all images in this article go to her.