For Anusha Ramesh, her ideal food to go with a morning kaapi is idli: steamed cakes made primarily from a batter of fermented rice and lentils commonly eaten during breakfast in South India and Sri Lanka.
“As soon as you ate solids as a baby, you ate idli. It should be soft, fluffy, and very hot,” she said, remembering the idlis she ate when she lived in Bangalore. “It’s vegan, gluten free, there’s probiotics and there’s protein. At home, you use the batter to make idlis for the first two or three days and then you use the batter for dosa as it develops a more distinct flavour.”
When Madras Kaapi opened late last year in Toronto, Ramesh started supplying the South Indian coffee house with idlis under the name Tiffin Maami — tiffin referring to the light morning meals people get from street stalls in India, Ramesh explained.
Ramesh and the café owners all grew up in South India and wanted to create a space that celebrated a small part of what they ate and drank growing up.
While idlis can be found in parts of the GTA with large South Asian populations, Ramesh had a harder time finding idlis downtown when she moved here 12 years ago, especially the ones that reminded her of her childhood.
“I’ve tried enough of the instant versions,” she said. “You don’t taste the same fermentation.”
So, eight years ago Ramesh called her mother Ranjani in India for a tutorial on how to make them. Like a lot of mom recipes, the measurements weren’t exact.
“We started with a Google Drive recipe book. Sometimes she’d send me a photo of a cup and tell me to use this Ikea blue cup, so I’d have to go to Ikea to find that cup,” Ramesh said. “So when it comes to recipe testing, there’s no idea of strict measurements.”
Her mom’s batter recipe is a mix of fenugreek, tapioca pearls, poha (parboiled flattened rice) and urad dal (a type of pulse ubiquitous in South Asian cooking).
Everything gets soaked in water for eight hours, then ground and left to ferment for 12 hours. The batter then gets poured into stackable metal molds shaped like discs and steamed for 10 minutes.
For now, Ramesh’s idli can only be found at Madras Kaapi. At the cafe, it is served with podi (also called milagai podi, or informally, gunpowder), a spicy ground mixture of roasted black and white sesame seeds, chickpeas, urad beans and two types of chilies from South India: guntur and byadgi.
“My grandmothers have similar recipes (for podi) so it’s from them, and we also add jaggery to give it a hint of sweetness,” said Ramesh. “You can also mix it with sesame oil to make a paste, or ghee, to use it as a condiment. It goes on rice sometimes, but it’s typically used on idli.”
While more modern iterations of idli have since popped up (i.e. idli pizza), Ramesh’s goal is to recreate the dish she remembers from her childhood.
“I kicked and yelled about not having more idli when I was young, but when I moved here I felt like I took some of that food for granted, so a lot of this is driven by nostalgia.”
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