In some cities in the U.S. (LA, Chicago, Berkeley, D.C.), it is possible to find restaurants serving the most popular dishes of South India (usually they are called Udupi Palace or Udupi something, after the city of Udupi in southeast India). These include dosai (a thin pancake made from rice and lentil flour and stuffed with vegetables), avial (a spicy stew with coconut milk base), uttapam (a vegetable pancake with rice/lenti flour base), and idli. The photo shows an idli (upper part of the photo), and the traditional sauces of sambar (the reddish sauce) and coconut chutney (the white sauce). One way of eating it is to break it up and flavor it with the two sauces.
A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T. Achaya describes an idli as:
...a common breakfast food of south India, the idli is a white, spongy, swollen circlet about 10 cm across. Rice grits and urad dal are ground together to a thick batter and left to ferment naturally overnight. Portions are placed on pieces of muslin held in depressions on a metal tray, and steamed in a closed vessel till cooked. Idlis are eaten with coconut chutney or with sambhar, or with a spiced pulse-based gritty powder called molaga-podi, doused with ghee or oil.
The first mention of the idli in literature [was] in the year AD 920, where it figures as one of eighteen items served to a brahmachari who visit the home of a lady. Thereafter it is a frequent item in Kannanda literature down the centuries...
See also the Wikipedia entry. To make your own idlis, sambhar or coconut chutney, I recommend Dakshin, by Chandra Padmanabhan.
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