Foods of South India: Idli

Idli or idly is a breakfast food, but you can eat this mild-mannered rice cake any time of day. In the photo here, there are two idlis stacked on the right, and it looks like a scoop of rice. Look closely and you may be able to see they're more like pancakes.

They remind me of the rather bland "dumplings" you find in Czech cuisine that's more like steamed bread than the filled Taiwanese dumplings that many Americans are accustomed to eating. Idlis may be bland but the upside is they go with everything, so you can use them to sop up any kind of chutney, soup, oil, or spice on your plate. 

Idlis are made by soaking dried rice and dried lentils, separately, in water overnight, grinding them down into a runny paste with water, letting that mixture ferment slightly one more night, and finally steaming them into palm-sized pancakes. Idlis should be very soft and served hot out of their special steamer basket. In Chennai, idlis almost always come with one particular accompaniment: coconut chutney.