There are a lot of dishes that people claim are perfect foods: oysters, hamburgers, waffles (if you’re Leslie Knope). My perfect food is idli, a round, fluffy rice cake eaten for breakfast in India. Idlis are made by steaming a batter made of fermented lentils and rice; the fermentation gives them their appealing funk, like that of sourdough bread or injera. When crafted properly, idlis taste like a cloud—or more specifically, a cloud that has been soaked with a delightful array of seasonings and sauces, frequently including coconut chutney, yogurt, sambar (a vegetable-based soup), and ghee (clarified butter). Idlis are everything you want out of breakfast: soft, mild, warming, hearty, and incredibly easy to eat.
When it comes to idlis, I try not to limit myself—why eat perfect food just for breakfast, when you can have it for lunch and dinner as well? Similarly, why top your idlis with just the usual suspects, when you can fuse this perfect food with all kinds of great flavors?
So, one Sunday, I spent the afternoon making idlis as I had never seen them before—combining the plain cake with the other flavors I find myself craving: peanut butter and jelly, pesto, apple cinnamon, and the like. I figured that, as has been done with other breakfast staples (pancakes, toast, eggs), idlis could be a blank canvas for discovering a whole new world of preparations. Idli breakfasts for days!
Here is a full log of my discoveries:
Cacio e Pepe
This particular experiment started as an idli topped with Parmesan cheese and butter, as suggested by a friend. When the initial combination left much to be desired, I decided to turn it into 2016’s hottest flavor trend: cacio e pepe. The pepper was a much-needed addition, balancing out the salt and fat.
This tasted like a Lunchable—so it was either great or horrible depending on how you feel about the classic childhood snack. For me it was the latter. I wish I could blame the poor results on the quality of the ingredients, but I was using Rao’s brand tomato sauce—the stuff that costs, like, $15 in the store. This idli left me feeling empty and craving a dollar slice.
Pesto is one of my all-time favorite condiments, and it really came through for me in a big way in this idli. I decided to put basil pesto both inside the idli batter as well as on top. The resulting explosion of flavor and Oscar the Grouch hue were equally satisfying. And the little herb leaves in the pesto added a pleasant texture.
Green curry is my Thai takeout dish of choice. For this trial, I made up a quick green curry sauce and used it as the binder for my idli batter (typically, water or yogurt is used). I spent a while deciding whether or not I liked this one. My ultimate conclusion was that I did. Though cooking the idli did cause the coconut milk flavor to mostly evaporate, the lingering, extremely distilled flavor of the green curry—salty, with notes of lemongrass and cilantro—was tasty all the same.
This was the sleeper hit of the group. I mixed some of the rub I typically use to make steak tacos (cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt) into my idli batter, and then topped the cooked idlis with a spritz of lime. The deep, layered flavors characteristic of Indian (and also Mexican) cuisine were nicely present here. This idli had exactly the right combination of acid, heat, and salt.
Bacon, Cheese, and Scallion
I grew up eating almost exclusively Indian food, and from my limited perspective, bacon, scallion, and cheddar cheese was as all-American a combination as they came. I have observed my peers covering everything from bread to baked potatoes to nachos with this patriotic marriage of toppings. So why not idlis? I thought. I thought very wrong. This was the most unenjoyable combination of all. In the cooking process, the bacon got very tough, the scallion flavor got lost, and in all fairness, I used a pretty old block of cheddar cheese, so that’s on me. PSA: Bacon does not taste good on everything.
I was optimistic that taking idlis into the sweet category would end in uniformly positive results. Chocolate chip idlis were one such winner. The chocolate chips (I used the mini kind) melted beautifully into every nook and cranny of the idli. It tasted like a tiny pancake or, more aptly, a McGriddle—McDonald’s greatest breakfast invention.
Adding marshmallows to idli batter WREAKED HAVOC on the cooking process; my idli ended up full of holes and mysteriously absent of any marshmallows. The texture of the idli was much tougher, and being ghosted by the marshmallows bummed me out. This was like a shitty, rubbery version of the chocolate chip idli.
Here was a true breakfast fail. I am strong proponent of the pie for breakfast movement, particularly when that pie is apple. On the plate, this smelled promising, exactly like a slice of pie. But the inherent sourness of the idli completely overwhelmed the subtle, floral, sweet flavors that make apple pie so excellent.
Peanut Butter and Jelly
Putting peanut butter and jelly straight into the idli batter seemed like a disgusting prospect, so I decided to approach this one like a PB&J sandwich. I cut a plain idli in half and spread peanut butter and grape jelly on each side. The finished product looked exactly like an Uncrustable. And the taste was not unlike that of an Uncrustable, either: generic, somewhat artificial, fine overall? It didn’t taste bad, per se, but I would have much preferred my PB&J on sandwich bread.
It wouldn’t be a taste test without involving the Trendiest Flavor of All Time: pumpkin spice. I thought this one would for sure be a winner—like portable rounds of pumpkin bread. Nope. The pumpkin pie filling messed with the texture, and the idli looked a bit like a burnt orange turd. It tasted like pumpkin bread that had gone bad. Pumpkin spice may belong in lattes, muffins, and even Oreos; but it most certainly does not belong in idlis.
On the whole, while there were bright spots, most of my experiments were failures. I did not find a single idli flavor that I preferred more than the usual combination of chutneys and sambar. Idli, while delicious, is not the plain base that I thought it could be.
I am the kind of person who thrives off coming up with new and creative ways of combining flavors. But as far as idlis go, it’s ultimately not worth messing with a breakfast that is already perfect.