The humble, modest, ubiquitous idlis are a favoured breakfast option for their ease of availability (especially if you stay down South of India) and quick preparation. Is idli a healthy breakfast as some claim? What is the right batter ratio? How to enhance its nutritional profile?

Originating from South India, Idli is a steamed cake made from a batter of fermented rice and black lentils, usually paired with sambhar (a spicy lentil soup), a chutney, pickle or yogurt. As someone of South Indian origin who lived all her formative years in northern states, I never loved Idlis and was thankful they weren’t ever a part of our menu – not even occasionally. Mother used to give in to neighbors’ demands and indulge them in Idli-Sambhar, which we wouldn’t touch with a pole. However, my latter years in South India taught me to embrace and even love the omnipresent idlis, for they were a great option when you wanted a quick fix meal, and the batter was practically at all times present in the fridge.

I never though much of idlis nutrition-wise; in my head they were always a quick and hygienic meal option when we traveled. Imagine my surprise when I gathered Idlis were also considered a healthy and nutritive breakfast choice! Idlis can be a balanced meal option and full of nutrition alright, IF made the right way. Read on to know all about idlis – the good, the bad and how to make them healthier:

Carrot-Flax-Ragi (Finger Millet) Idli with hummus, ghee, chili chutney

What makes Idli Good?

Easiest preparation ever – All you need to do is soak parboiled/ brown/ white rice/ wheat rawa along with split black gram (urad dal) in water overnight, grind it to a smooth mixture in the morning, ladle the batter in idli steamer molds and you have soft, spongy goodnesses ready in 10 minutes. Few healthy meals require as minimal prep as these!

Fermentation – Overnight fermentation of the idli batter leads to production of naturally occurring microoragnisms which use the sugars in the batter to produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Aside from the natural leavening, this results in reduction of harmful phytates and enhanced nutrient profile, with increased content of vitamin C, vitamin B (thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid), as well as protein available.

Probiotic – The fermentation process leads to cultivation of gut-friendly bacteria to the batter, making idlis a probiotic food option. Probiotics are essential for fighting gut inflammations and maintaining gut health.

Complementary amino acid profile – The amino acid (protein building blocks) profiles of rice and urad dal are incomplete on their own, but mixing the two completes the same, making more protein content available for synthesis.

Ragi Idli with Ghee, tomato chutney, capsicum-onion chutney, yogurt.

What Makes Idli Bad?

Too less use of Urad dal

Some households/ commercial preparations employ a 2:0.75 ratio batter for rice and urad dal, wherein the natural fermentation process might take a hit and require addition of yeast/ soda for proper fermentation. In reality, the nutrients required for proper fermentation are formed adequately when the right quantity of urad dal is soaked in water, resulting in production of optimum lactic acid. Using the right ratio for batter is what will make your idli nutritious and delicious.

Portion

An idli on its own contains anywhere between 40-65 calories and hence is a low-carb breakfast option with optimum content of fiber and protein, but consuming the same in high quantities will turn it into a disadvantage real quick. Having 3-4 idlis with a vegetable chutney and Sambar or yogurt is recommended as ideal portion for breakfast for a 1500-2000 calorie diet.

Unhealthy variants

We reap what we sow – that plate of fried idlis dunked in tomato ketchup or soya sauce shall come to avenge in the form of high calories and zero nutrition.

Pairing

Most of the times, it’s what you pair idlis with makes more of a difference to your macros and micros, than the idlis themselves. While pairing with Sambhar (a spiced lentil soup) is a great way to add to the nutritional value of the meal, it is the chutneys you need to watch out for. Coconut chutney is a great way to add essential fats, but less is more in this case. Vegetable chutneys are a good choice, as they add dietary fiber and micronutrients. I love a dollop of hummus with idlis (with everything, really!) – call me crazy after you’ve tried it and didn’t like it 😛

What Can be Done to Make Idlis Healthier?

Using the right ratio – Researchers found that using 3:1 ratio of parboiled rice and urad dal for the idli batter results in the maximum vitamin B content, in comparison with 2:1 and 4:1 ratio batters. Read the entire research result here.

Use wheat rava/ brown or red rice – Another great option is to add to the fiber content present by substituting rice with wheat rava. Don’t want to play too much with flavour? Try brown rice or red rice in place of usual rice. Sure, that much fiber can be availed by pairing with a veggie-based chutney, but brown rice also renders a nuttier taste which I personally love.

Brown Rice Idlis with Gongura Pachadi, Sesame Paste & Cucumber Pachadi

Add wheatgerm/ sesame paste to increase protein content – Sprinkling wheatgerm or ground sesame (nuvvula podi to us Andhra-ites!) increases the protein, fiber and essential fats content, while enhancing the taste too.

Add greens – Great way to enhance the nutrient profile whilst ensuring you have sufficient veggies for the day. Try adding chopped veggies or green leafy vegetables to the batter after placing it in the steamer mold, and relish!

Palak / Spinach Wheatgerm Idli with Yogurt & Sesame Paste

Add millets to increase micronutrient content – Millets are making a huge comeback, and all for good reason! Try Ragi Idli or Samai Idli. You can practically try idlis with most millet varieties, except pearl millet (jowar), and they do turn out delicious in their own unique way, allowing you to try something different every time.