"You only cook what you like", I used to yell accusingly at my mom as a fussy 7-year old.
For mothers from the conventional Indian household where the job of cooking squarely falls on their shoulders, I often muse about how menu choices are made. I've realised for one, that my cooking style over the years has been heavily influenced by my primary company at that time. I started cooking only about 5 years ago and what I learnt to cook and how I improved upon it had a lot to do with my sister who I was living with at that time. And getting her nod of approval meant amping up the spice. Now I live with K, who has the exact opposite palette- he prefers simpler, relatively blander meals and I find myself involuntarily tuning to that direction and learning to appreciate subtleties.
I think in quite the same way, my mother tried to work around what she thought would be a happy medium with all our taste buds. One of my quirky little memories from my childhood was that of a time when my mother made us “chocolate idlis”, in hopes that we would finally smack our lips and clean our plates out swiftly instead of bawling our eyes out of so-called breakfast boredom at the table every morning. Now, idlis- for those yet unaware, are the most sublime little clouds of simplicity South Indians eat for breakfast. And for reasons almost along the same lines, as a child, I didn't care for them. I thought they were boring, lacked personality and were lame to so heavily rely on chutneys to give them life. And if the chutney was not up to mark? That was the end of it. That breakfast was doomed.
Wow, what an evil little critic I was, for that age.
So what better way to appeal to us chocolate-crazed kids? One morning, my mother brought out chocolate idlis to us with much anticipation. Excitement gleamed from her eyes about her accomplishment that she thought would now be our favourite forever. Unfortunately for her, that did not happen. We disliked them instantly and much to her disappointment, put them away even faster than we did regular idlis. Her pale reaction and continued persistence in trying to sell us on them is comically clear in my memory. Poor mom.
Meanwhile, as years have passed, I appreciate that not everything needs to be covered in maniacal sprinkles; I have grown to love and absolutely place idlis on the pedestal they are truly worthy of. Fermented rice, steamed to fluffy little cakes of perfection, dabbed with ghee right off the stove- modest, yet invincible in their sense of simple healthiness.
So ask me again. The crowning glory is really the chutney. What can be more wonderful than choosing whatever strikes the mood or even just what’s at hand: classic coconut chutney, peanut chutney, ginger chutney, nalla podi, the staple gunpowder- and having a different experience with whatever the choice?
As I have come to believe in food as a celebration of life, very much inspired by those who surround you, this episode often comes to my mind. I somehow never asked mom about what exactly she did to turn them into chocolate idlis and if indeed, they were great-tasting to begin with and we were just a pair of fusspot kids. Since starting Handful, I've wanted to revisit the chocolate idlis as an idea and in a sense, attempt to complete the circle of a memory that my mother started unwittingly.
As with chocolate and me, it was easy to slip into a mode of decadance. The real challenge of course, lay in not making dessert-like cocoa-slathered indulgences, but staying true to my mother's idea- a simple, clean and uncomplicated breakfast item that would be fun for kids. But I'm no recipe developer, so this took me many trials to find something that worked.
I experimented with fermenting which is the foundation of idlis, but the sour taste of Indian-ish ingredients with chocolate did not gel. I found myself slipping into cakey things with eggs to give the rise, but stayed away as it is generally an ingredient unheard of in traditional South Indian breakfasts. Eventually I came back to a simple steamed rice flour recipe, with a light batter that would give it the fluffiness it needed.
So here is my final version. Cocoa, rice flour, sugar, milk- that's it. Steamed into mini idlis for fun! And a coconut-almond butter ground with pistacchio oil- inspired by the coconut chutney and accompanied with honey, if you so desire!
70 grams rice flour
30 grams cocoa powder
50 grams sugar
100 ml milk
Butter to grease idli moulds
Mix all of the ingredients above, pour upto half-way on greased idli moulds and steam for 10 minutes. Enjoy them while still hot, just like with idlis!
100 grams blanched almonds
20 grams coconut flakes
10 ml pistacchio oil
Maple syrup to taste
Place all the ingredients in a blender and process for 1-2 minutes to finely grind them to a powder. Continue to process the nuts for an additional 3-5 minutes while scraping down the sides, to form a smooth and creamy paste. Garnish with a handful of chopped pistacchios and a drizzle of honey before serving.
My little friend Luis, agreed to be my taster, and he told me what he thought.
"Mmm..chocolate." "There isn't as much sugar as I expected", he said in German. But he liked that they were small bites!
So mom, we're getting there!