Mama’s Punjabi Recipes: Idli aur Nariyal Chutney (South Indian Rice Cakes & Coconut Chutney)


Among the South Indian dishes that have migrated northward over the past 40 years to the Punjab, idlis (rice cakes) are second only to dosas (rice crepes) in popularity, even into other parts of North India. With the advent of ready-made mixes, both these dishes are easily prepared in homes and there are plenty of restaurants and street vendor stalls which offer these snacks.

Idli is a traditional Tamil dish, with references in Vaddaradhane, a 920 AD Kannada language work by Shivakotiacharya which mentions “iddalige”, prepared only from a black   urad dal (lentil) batter.  An uddina idli recipe is described in the 12th century AD, in the area that is now Karnataka where it is still made to this day. Karnataka is also home to the popular thinner and crispier variety of dosas. The main ingredients for idlis are the same as for dosas except for the measures: rice and skinless urad lentils. The idlis are usually thicker and fluffier and are usually served with sambar and coconut chutney, though Punjabis will eat often them with spicy chutney alone.

After Independence, South Indian cuisine drifted across the country and many variations developed in the preparation of idlis. Some people used parboiled rice, cream of rice, semolina or cream of wheat and even yogurt to add the sour flavor and cut down on the fermentation. In New Delhi idlis and dosas were first served at the Madras Hotel in Connaught Place where they became wildly popular. Idlis are high in carbohydrates but are also a good source of protein. The rice and lentils are allowed to ferment in order to make a batter, and this increases the vitamin B and vitamin C content. Instant idli mixes usually contain higher amounts of rice.

In this recipe, a small amount of methi (fenugreek) seeds are added to enhance the flavor.  Idlis can be served with chutney and sambar (a thin, lentil-based spicy vegetable soup). Some people add other flavors like mustard seeds, chilli peppers, ginger and so on and some even add sugar to make sweet idlis. Leftover idlis can be cut-up or crushed and sautéed to make idli upma. You can even make a dahin idli by combining them with yogurt, adding spices and then tempering the dish. Some restaurants have even made fusion dishes like idli Manchurian, idli fry and chilli idli. Cocktail sized idlis served on a toothpick have also become popular over the past decade.

To make the small idlis (usually 2 to 3 inches diameter) you will need a idli steamer which looks like a tray to make poached eggs but stacked so that many can be made at one time. Idlis are quick to make in a stovetop steamer, microwave or an automatic electric idli maker. Rather than use instant mixes, I hope that younger people will see how simple the ingredients are and try to enjoy making idlis at home themselves. This recipe does not use any dahin (yogurt). The chutney recipe is also quite simple, but other pickles and chutneys can be substituted.


For Idlis:
• 2 cups chawal ka atta (rice flour)
• 1 cup dhuli urad ki daal ka atta (skinless urad lentil flour)
• 2 tsp methi danna powder (fenugreek powder)
• 4 cup pani (water)
• Some tael (vegetable oil) – for cooking idlis
• Spices to taste: namak (salt), mirch (red pepper)

For Coconut Chutney:
• 1 cup kutra hua nariyal (grated coconut)
• 1/4 cup hari mirch (green chillies)
• 2 tbsp imbli paste (tamarind paste)
• 2 cups pani (water)


For Idlis:
1. If you are unable to find the urad daal flour or methi danna powder, you can take the same amounts and grind them finely.
2. Mix all the chawal atta, urad atta and methi danna powder together in a bowl.
3. Pour in the water and mix well making sure there are no clumps in the mixture.
4. Cover the bowl and leave it inside the oven overnight. Do NOT turn the oven on but leave the oven light on to keep a steady temperature. This will help the mixture to ferment overnight.
5. In the morning, take the bowl out of the oven and stir to check consistency. The batter should be thick enough to spread.
6. Fill the idli steamer with some water at the bottom. Coat each basin (usually four or five to a tray) with some oil and then then pour in the mixture. When each tray is full, stack each tray up.
7. Close the steamer and turn the heat on to medium to let the water boil for 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and let steamer sit for another 5 minutes.
8. Open the steamer and check the idli in the top tray. If it is firm with tiny spores, then it is ready to eat. If not, then let it cook in the steam a few more minutes.
9. When ready, take the trays out and pour the idlis into a bowl. Serve hot with the coconut chutney.

For Coconut Chutney:
1. Wash the green chillies and then cut into small pieces.
2. In a small bowl, mix the chopped chilies and grated coconut together.
3. Add the imbli paste and pour in the water slowly, stirring continuously to mix well.
4. Leave in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes before serving.

mamas recipe inside3

Shakuntla Malhotra is a skilled cook of Punjabi dishes made in the old-fashioned style that she learnt as a young woman in her ancestral home in Lyallpur, India (since renamed Faisalabad) before it became part of Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. People have often admired her cooking for its simplicity and taste that comes with each mouthful. Even in her late-eighties, she continues to cook daily and agreed to share her delectable Punjabi vegetarian recipes for future generations.