In my opinion, nothing beats a sumptuous, filling and healthy Indian breakfast. It’s the perfect start to a busy day. We truly believe in the adage, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper”. This is supposed to help with your body’s metabolism and is quite beneficial if followed correctly.
Like any other meal, breakfast in India differs from region to region. But in my opinion, nothing beats the traditional South Indian favorites – dosas and idlis (or idlys). They are made from a batter of rice and lentils fermented overnight. Dosas are cooked like crepes on a hot skillet, while idlis are steamed in special idli plates. This makes idlis the most nutritious and healthy food ever. Like any good thing, there are numerous spin-offs and variations to the original recipe. You can make instant idlis without any of the soaking, grinding and fermenting. Rava (or semolina) idlis are made using semolina, with a little yogurt added for fluffiness and the trademark subtle tang to an idli. The batter can be lightly spiced with a classic tadka, some finely chopped ginger and green chilis, and the vegetables that can be added are only limited by your imagination. It is a great way to inject some vegetables into picky eaters, first thing in the morning… ahem!
Pair soft idlis with a generous helping of fragrant sambar (pronounced sahm-baar) and you are good to go, full of energy to face a long day. Sambar is a soupy “curry” (we don’t use that term really), made with lentils and vegetables, eaten with dosas, idlis, and also rice. It is also highly nutritious and the lifeblood of South Indians. We cannot imagine life without sambar, and I am not joking.
When you make sambar for breakfast, you can omit the vegetables and make what is known as tiffin sambar, the word ‘tiffin’ is part of Indian English and can mean breakfast, snack or a light meal that is eaten between two main meals. It can also mean a meal that can be easily packed for travel and eaten with very little fuss and leftovers.
This sambar begins with a quick homemade sambar masala powder, a generous amount of cooked yellow lentils (toovar dal), juicy tomatoes and tamarind pulp. You will also add a quick tempering of Indian shallots, mustard seeds and curry leaves. The flavors are rounded off with a touch of jaggery (or white sugar), fresh cilantro leaves, and a dollop of ghee towards the end. Allow the sambar to rest for a few minutes before serving. Open the lid and you will be greeted with an aroma that is just out of this world!
While the sambar is bubbling away, you can steam-cook the idlis. The idlis can also be served with another trademark of South India, a fiery chutney powder. This is a brilliant and beautiful concoction made of roasted dals, red chilis, garlic and a few other stuff, and has an amazing shelf life. I usually get it ready-made from the Indian store and there are many brands that make decent chutney powder. This is to be mixed with a bit of oil (sesame oil, preferably) just before eating. Every South Indian household stocks this in their pantry for the days when we don’t have the time or inclination to make a pot of sambar to go with dosas and idlis. So if you are wondering what that orange-red powder is in the pictures, it is chutney podi/powder.
RAVA IDLI (STEAMED SAVORY SEMOLINA CAKES)
You will need: (Makes 12-15 idlis)
- Oil or ghee – 2 tsp
- Cashew nuts – 4-5, broken
- Mustard seeds – 1/4 tsp
- Urad dal – 1 tsp
- Rava/sooji/semolina – 1 1/2 cups
- Ginger – 1 tbsp, finely grated or chopped
- Green chili – 1, finely chopped
- Curry leaves – 6-8, cut into thin ribbons
- Cilantro leaves – 2 tbsp, chopped
- Carrot – 1 medium-sized, shredded (optional)
- Yogurt – 3/4 cup
- Water – as needed
- Salt – 1 tsp
- Baking soda – 1/4 tsp
- Heat oil (or ghee) in a large skillet. Fry the cashews, drain and keep aside.
- Then add the mustard seeds and urad dal. Fry till the seeds crackle and the urad dal turns light golden.
- Then add the rava/semolina and roast for a couple of minutes on medium heat, stirring all the while.
- Remove this mixture to a large mixing bowl and cool slightly. Then add the fried cashews, ginger, green chili, curry leaves, cilantro and carrots. Sir to combine and add yogurt. Mix well till it the mixture is uniformly moistened. Add a little water to make a smooth, but thick batter. The batter should be thicker than a regular pancake or dosa batter. Cover the bowl and rest for half an hour.
- After half an hour, add salt and baking soda to the batter and mix well. Adjust with a bit of water if batter seems to have thickened further.
- Meanwhile, heat water in a steamer vessel. Grease and set aside the idli plates.
- Pour batter in the idli plates and steam in the steamer vessel for 8-10 minutes or till idlis are cooked (check with a toothpick to see if it comes clean).
- Remove from steamer, rest for 5 minutes and remove the idlis from the idli plates using a spoon.
- Serve idlis immediately with hot sambar and spicy chutney powder. Store leftovers in a hot-pot or casserole. These can be re-heated in the microwave or lightly steamed again.
TIFFIN SAMBAR (SOUTH INDIAN LENTIL AND ONION “CURRY”)
You will need:
For the sambar masala,
- Whole dried red chilis – 2-4 (as per heat level desired)
- Chana dal – 1 tbsp, heaped
- Coriander seeds – 1 tbsp
- Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
- Fenugreek seeds – 1/4 tsp
For the sambar,
- Toovar/Toor dal – 1/2 cup, heaped
- Turmeric powder – 1/4 tsp
- Oil – 2 tsp
- Mustard seeds – 1/4 tsp
- Curry leaves – 8-10
- Asafoetida (hing) – 1/8 tsp
- Small Indian shallots – 8-10, peeled and roots cut off (or 1/4 cup chopped red onion)
- Tomato – 1 large, chopped
- Green chilis – 1-2, chopped
- Fresh tamarind – a small lime-sized ball (or use 2 tsp of concentrated tamarind paste)
- Cilantro leaves – a few, roughly torn
- Water – 3 cups (or more, as needed)
- Salt – to taste
- Sugar – 1 tsp
- Ghee – 1 tsp
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat and dry roast the sambar masala ingredients. Cool down and grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder or mortar-pestle. Keep aside.
- Wash the dal in cold water a couple of times. Pressure cook it in a pressure cooker adding enough water and 1/4 tsp turmeric powder for 2-3 whistles or till soft. If you do not have a pressure cooker, cook dal in a large covered pot. Once done, mash the lentils and keep aside.
- Soak the fresh tamarind in 1/2 cup warm water. Once they soften, squeeze all the pulp by kneading the tamarind ball well with your fingers. Strain this and keep aside. If you are using tamarind paste, simply dissolve in 1/2 cup of warm water.
- Heat oil in a large, deep pan and add mustard seeds and curry leaves. When they begin to crackle, add the asafoetida and whole shallots (or chopped onions) and saute till translucent and aromatic. Next add tomatoes and green chilis and saute till tomatoes are soft.
- Add the prepared tamarind pulp and bring to a gentle boil.
- Add the sambar masala and mix thoroughly to combine. Cook for 1-2 minutes till nicely fragrant and it begins to thicken slightly. Then add 2-2 1/2 cups of water and cilantro leaves and boil for a few minutes.
- Now add the mashed dal and season with salt. Add more water if it seems too thick. Bring the sambar to a rolling boil and finish by adding sugar and ghee.
- Keep covered for at least half an hour before serving. Enjoy hot sambar with dosas, idlis or steamed rice.
- In a pinch, you can replace the coriander seeds and cumin seeds needed for the masala with the respective powders. Take care not to burn them while roasting. But do not skimp or omit the chana dal and fenugreek seeds, they are what sets this masala apart from other Indian spice blends.
- Indian shallots are smaller with a deep purple-red color and a unique taste. You can replace it with regular shallots or even chopped red onions.
- Usually breakfast sambar may not be served with vegetables added, but you can use this basic recipe and add boiled vegetables to it. Add the cooked vegetables along with the dal and adjust water to required consistency. Traditionally, vegetables like potatoes, yam, green plantain, okra, brinjal/eggplant, etc are used.
Smear some ghee over the idlis for the little ones and feed them these fluffy pillows for a very filling and healthy meal. I added a generous amount of shredded carrots and the little bunny here gobbled them all up with no fuss. Win-win, right?!
At this point, I need to ‘fess up to something. We love breakfast for dinner (who doesn’t?!) and many days you will find us eating this very combination for dinner!
Tell me, how do you like your breakfast? Have you tried this combination? Let me know.
I am linking this up at these awesome blogs.
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- By Stephanie Lynn