Most of us know Kanchipuram for its most famous export—beautiful silk saris in rich colours and gold motifs. Kanjeevaram saris are an essential part of every Indian woman’s wardrobe, and this bustling town deep inside Tamil Nadu is known as the birthplace of these 6-yard wonders. Woven by a community of master weavers who migrated from Saurashtra to Kanchipuram, the town is a beautiful melting pot of cultures, crafts and food!
The Kanchipuram idli is a foot long variant of the popular south Indian steamed rice cake—offered as prasadam at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple. Legend has it that these idlis have been offered as naivedyam to the deity since the reign of the Pallavas who ruled the region intermittently, beginning 275 CE; however, its provenance and journey to somewhat cult status among idlis, is not clear. Since this dish is part of the offering made at the Vararaja Perumal temple, Kanchipuram idlis are also known as kovil idlis – kovil is Tamil for temple.
Traditionally steamed in a brass container over a wood fire, Kanchipuram idlis are different from your regular idlis. This one is denser with fenugreek seeds, dried ginger, cumin seeds, black pepper, curry leaves, asafoetida, and ghee added to the batter of coarsely ground rice, black urad dal, and curd. The batter is left to ferment overnight and then steamed in a foot-long, cylindrical cane basket called kudalai. Before pouring the batter into the mould, it is lined with a couple of mantharai (sal) leaves.
“The mantharai leaves,” explains Rakesh Raghunathan, “ensure that the batter doesn’t drip. They also impart a mild yet distinct fragrance to the idli, which mingles with the ghee and spices while cooking to enhance the dish’s flavour.” Once the kudalai is filled with batter, it is steamed for three to four hours approximately. The result of this process is a cylindrical cake that is cut into round pieces and served with podi.
Over the years, the popularity of Kanchipuram idli has grown, and restaurants in this city of thousand temples have begun to serve the idli. However, to date, the best ones can only be found in the madappalli (temple kitchen) of Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram, says Raghunathan