Food

Have you really eaten idlis until you’ve eaten Ramassery idlis in Kerala?

These five families have been making wood-fire idlis for the last 200 years.

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
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
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
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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.