Bhagyalakshmi stood at the entrance of Saraswathy tea shop in an interior village in North Kerala. She was clad in an old sari which was torn in places, chewing betel nut, her salt and pepper hair tied in a bun. She doesn’t smile a lot because her teeth have rotted away with all the supari-chewing over the years.

Bhagyalakshmi is a canny businesswoman in the village of Ramassery. Despite appearances, she is reasonably wealthy, having made her fortune selling idlis – Ramassery idlis to be precise.

“I have five daughters and I’ve married them all off,” Bhagyalakshmi said. “I also employ five people, tying up with big hotels in Palakkad, so they can bring in tourists to taste my idlis.”

Ramassery, a village about 12 kilometres from Palakkad, is known for its idlis. The story goes that about 200 years ago, some Mudaliar families came to Kerala from Kanchipuram, Tirupur and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and settled in Ramassery. These families came to Kerala because of its fertile land and offer of work, and also because it was close to their home state. The men were weavers and the women were great cooks.

Today, only five Mudaliar families remain in Ramassery – all of them make idlis.

Devi makes idlis on a wood fire. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

“When my in-laws’ ancestors arrived here, they used to pay idlis as wages to the labourers who helped with weaving,” Bhagyalakshmi said. “During the British Raj, when the trains first started between Palakkad and Madurai, and Palakkad and Chennai, there was no catering on those trains. So the Mudaliar families started packing the idlis they made at home. The idlis would survive a week. They also packed a podi or dried chutney powder with it. The Brahmins would carry their own coffee decoction.” It was thus the Ramassery idlis first began to travel outside Palakkad.

Bouquet of flavours

Many describe this idli as a cross between a traditional dosa and an idli. “The Ramassery idli is flat, less spongy than the traditional idli,” Bhagyalakshmi said. “It’s also a bit more fermented than what people are used to.” The biggest difference is in the way it is cooked. Traditionally, the idli is steamed in a steel vessel on a gas stove, but the Ramassery idli is made on a wood fire. “The wood we use is tamarind because it gives consistent heat and doesn’t produce much smoke,” she said.

Now, Ramassery idlis have travelled at least as far as the Gulf countries. “They last three to four days because of the special ari or rice that we get from Tamil Nadu,” Bhagyalakshmi said. She has been running the business on her own for the last 22 years since her husband passed away.

Ramassery Idli, served with chutney, podi and stew. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

Family business

In the kitchen, 60-year-old Devi has been making idlis since 6 am. She comes from a nearby village and usually finishes work by mid-day. Today, she is making about 500 idlis. “All of these will be eaten by people who come to the shop,” she said. Devi fills an aluminium pot with water, puts it on the fire and then covers it with a mud pot to create steam. The mouth of this second pot is also covered. On it she places a banana leaf, spreads the idli batter and covers it with another mud vessel.

The Ramassery idli is steamed and ready in about five minutes. It has the imprint of the banana leaf, those tiny lines, on it. “The good thing is I don’t have to stand and make all these idlis,” Devi said. “I can’t do that at my age. I can just sit by the fire, do my work and earn money.”

Outside, in the shop’s dining area, hot idlis are served with vegetable stew, coconut chutney, an eye-watering spicy chutney called ulli (made of a smaller variety of onion, usually used to cook sambar or lentil stew in South India and podi, or dried chutney made by mixing gram with spices. The podi is mixed with coconut oil to balance the heat and bring out the taste. Each plate with two idlis costs Rs 15 and can keep you full for an entire morning.

Saraswathy Tea Stall. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

The idlis have made the village of Ramassery well off. The houses here are well constructed. Each house has a two-wheeler, a television, fridge and fans. The five Mudaliar families who make these idlis are all related. They have adopted Malayali customs and speak Malayalam among themselves, but the Malayalam they speak is mixed with Tamil.

“The Mudaliar families in Ramassery don’t get competitive with each other,” said Arun Kumar, who also makes idlis with his wife. “We have divided who does what. We don’t step on each other’s toes. For example, Bhagyalakshmi has people coming and eating in her shop. I supply Ramassery idlis to shops, bakeries and hotels in Palakkad and Chittoor every day. My brother Ravindran sells them to supermarkets in Palakkad. Our business is well divided.”

Arun Kumar and his wife Rajeshwari have just made fresh batter and have left it to ferment. “It has to ferment for exactly seven hours,” Rajeshwari said. “Then there’s the proportion of the rice and urad dal. People have learnt from us, gone away to other towns, replicated the process down to the finest details and yet the idlis don’t come out right. It’s all in the hand, the air and water.” The couple makes 700-1,000 idlis a day and a pack of 6 idlis sells for Rs 30.

Kumar is now thinking about the future of Ramassery idlis. “My children are away studying engineering and computer science,” he said. “They’re not interested in making idlis. So I wonder who will make them in the future. We will lose our tradition.”

But Kumar’s brother Ravindran said a businessman from Thrissur recently made the families an offer. “He wants 5,000 idlis a day,” Ravindran said. “Which means each family will make 1,000 idlis. He will buy it off us at Rs 5 an idli.” The businessman will sell the Ramassery idlis to bigger towns in Kerala such as Cochin and Thrissur. His plan is to be the main supplier around the state. “I do wonder what the future holds for us” Ravindran said. “Whether we will lose what has been ours for 200 years. Only time will tell.”