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A Sampling of South Indian Breads

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A Sampling of South Indian Breads

Authors: Monica Bhide and Chef K.N. Vinod


Kerala, situated in the southern part of India, is one of the most blessed places in the world. It is a gorgeous state boasting luscious green landscapes, magnificent waterscapes, and a cuisine to match. It also boasts a unique and healthy cuisine that has benefited greatly from the influx of settlers and traders throughout the history of India. Kerala hosts Hindus, Christians and Muslims and reflects Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, French, Arabic and of course the British influence in its cuisine and culture.


Chef Vinod, his charming mother, Pushpavathy, and I would like to present to you some of the unique breads from Kerala. We have borrowed a few from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu as well ( the Dosas and the Idlies) to give you a birds-eye-view of the breads of South India.

Most Westerners are more familiar with the standard North Indian breads that are available here in most restaurants, the Naan, the Tandoori Roti etc. We would like to introduce you to an entirely different concept of bread. Perfectly steamed breads made with rice flour and coconut. Some sweetened with jaggery (cane sugar), some drunk with pickles, others alive with peppers. Come join us on this wonderful journey into a world that will entice you. This is a mere sampling to whet your palate.

You will notice that some of the preparations require special utensils. We have tried to show you the authentic way in which these dishes are prepared (at the Chef’s home in DC). Where possible we have indicated alternate utensils for the home cook. Many of the utensils, ingredients etc. can be purchased from www.namaste.com (Unfortunately, they do not ship outside of the United States). Banana leaves are readily available at most Korean or other ethnic food stores.

A tip: Be sure to read the recipe completely before you begin.

Please note that these are the Chef’s rendition of these recipes. There are always regional quirks and variations.


Chef Vinod and his mother Pushpavathy.

Cracking the Coconut

We wanted to start with the basics! This will show you how to crack a coconut.

Step 1: You can see that the Chef is holding the coconut and breaking it with large sickle-like knife. I would suggest you take it outside and bang it once or twice on hard cement!!



Step 2: Here you can see the cracked coconut. (If you like, drink the water, which is unbelievably sweet. It's even better if you have green, young, tender coconuts). The water of this mature coconut may not be that sweet.


Step 3: Here are two very traditional methods of grating the coconut. In the first method, Pushpavathy is sitting on the floor with a floor-based grater and in the second one, we have the grater fixed to the side of a table.



Step 4: Being ever practical (remember – “What would your mom say”) I suggest you can also buy a bag of grated coconut, now so easily available!


Puttu: Rice flour moistened and mixed with grated coconut and steamed.


• 1 cup rice flour

• ½ cup grated coconut

• 1 teaspoon cumin

• ½ cup water

• Salt to taste



Mix all the ingredients and set aside.


This recipe uses a pressure cooker and a very special cylinder called a Puttu Kutti (some people use bamboo). We will show two different ways to prepare this dish – one using the cylinder (hollow at one end, small hole at the other), one using a coconut shell. You can also create your own contraption to prepare this dish (see method 3 below).

Method 1

Add about 8 cups of water to your pressure cooker. Cover and allow the pressure to build.

In the meantime, using a spoon, fill the cylinder with mixture. Be sure to pack it tight

Place the cylinder on the steam nozzle of the pressure cooker. Cover.


Steam for about 3 -4 minutes. Remove the cylinder from the heat.

Use a spatula to push out the steamed rice flour cake onto a plate.



Repeat process until all the dry mixture has been used up.

Serve hot.

Method 2

Here we used a coconut shell to prepare the Puttu. Drill a small hole in the bottom of one of the coconut shell halves. Fill the half shell (with the hole), with the mixture.


Place the shell on the steam nozzle of the pressure cooker.


Cover with the other coconut shell.


Steam for about 3 -4 minutes.


Remove from the heat. Use a spatula to push out the steamed rice flour cake onto a plate.

Repeat process until all the dry mixture has been used up.

Serve hot.

Method 3

Heat water to a rolling boil in a deep dutch oven or a deep pan.

Place a hollowed cylinder in the center (hollowed at both ends).

Place the coconut shell (with mixture as described in method 2) on the cylinder and follow directions in method 2.


This dish is best served hot. It is traditionally served with bananas, Indian wafer (papadams) and black chickpeas. (We ate it with North Indian style with chick peas). Pushpavathy indicated that in some places in South India, it is also eaten with plain sugar.



Puttu Served with plantain and channas

Ada: Steamed and stuffed rice flour bread


• 4 cardamom seeds

• 2 small lumps of jaggery

• 7 tablespoons grated coconut

• ¾ cup hot water

• 2 cups of rice flour

• A pinch of salt


Roughly pound the cardamom seeds. If you use a mortar and pestle to pound the seeds, remove the skins after pounding. Alternatively you can use a spice mill, in which case you would leave the skins on.


Using a grater, grate the jaggery.


Add the powdered cardamom to the jaggery and set aside.

In a bowl, mix the water, rice flour and salt. Knead into a loose dough.



Divide the dough into seven equal parts.


Heat a skillet or griddle or a hot plate on high heat. While the skillet is heating, prepare the bread.

Place a banana leaf on the counter top. With moistened hands, place one dough ball on the leaf.


Gently begin to press the dough out. Keep pressing and stretching until the dough is about 8 inches in diameter.




Now we will add the stuffing.

Stuffing 1: Using a spoon, spread about 1 tablespoon of coconut on flattened dough.


Stuffing 2: In a small bowl, mix a tablespoon of coconut with a tablespoon of the jaggery mixture. Spread on the flattened dough.


Fold the banana leaf into half, press down gently. (If the leaf is too large, trim the edges.)

Repeat for all the dough balls.

Place the folded banana leaf on a skillet.


Brown for 3 minutes on each side (it might be a bit longer depending on how high your heat is).

Cover and steam for about 7 – 8 minutes.



Serve hot.


The perfectly melted and caramelized jaggery oozes sinfulness from the bread.


Another version of this dish is called the Kozhi Katta – here the dough is tighter and is stuffed with jaggery and steamed.


A divine and delicate bread made by the Muslim community (also known as the Moplahs of Kerala). This is the Chef’s own rendition of this South Indian classic.

Prepare the dough as you would for Ada. (Some people use coconut milk instead of water to prepare this dough.) A touch of cumin seeds may be added for taste.



It is prepared in a similar method as the Ada. The difference is that the dough is flattened out much thinner to obtain the “flat bread” appearance.






Serve hot.



One of the most famous South Indian breads. A perfect crisp crepe-like bread prepared with rice and dal (lentil). These days, you can buy packaged mixes from your local Indian grocer. They save the soaking and fermenting time. (you can also purchase these online at www.namaste.com.)


• 4 cups long grain rice

• 1 cup white urad dal ( also called Dhuli Urad)

• ¾ cups water (approximately)

• Salt to taste

• 2 -3 tablespoons vegetable oil


Soak the dal in water for at least 3 -4 hours. Drain and set aside.

Soak the rice in water for at least 4 – 6 hours. Drain and set aside.

Put the the dal and a few tablespoons of water into a blender. Blend to a smooth consistency. The trick here is to try to do with it as little water as possible.


Remove from blender and place in a bowl.

Now add the rice and salt to the blender, again with ½ cup of water. Blend to a paste – this will not be as smooth as the dal paste. Add more water if needed.

Add the rice batter to the dal batter and mix well. Your batter should have the consistency of thick pancake batter.

Leave the batter to ferment overnight. This needs a warm environment. I generally warm the oven. Turn it off and then place the batter in it to ferment. An oven with a pilot light works well as well.


Now we are ready to make the dosas.

Heat a non-stick skillet. Using a paper napkin, dipped in a bit of oil, wipe the skillet.

Using a small glass bowl or a metal bowl (anything with a flat base), pour a ¼ cup of batter onto the skillet.



Using the bowl, make concentric circles to spread out the dosa.


Sprinkle a few drops of oil to prevent the dosa from sticking.


You will begin to see small bubbles forming and the dosa will begin to crisp.

Using your spatula, carefully roll the dosa off the skillet.





Serve hot.

There are many ways to stuff the dosas. You can also eat them plain with your choice of chutneys. See the Indian Forum for some lively discussions on Dosa and some noteworthy chutney recipes.

Uttapam: A savory pancake topped with chopped bell peppers, onions and cilantro.

Serve with your choice of chutney.


• Leftover Dosa batter

• 1/4 cup, each, chopped bell peppers, onions and cilantro leaves


Heat a non-stick skillet on medium heat.

Pour a ¼ cup of batter onto the skillet. (If you have a large skillet you can make more than one at a time).


Add a generous helping of the mixed peppers.


Cook for about 2 minutes.

Flip over and cook for another 4 -5 minutes.



Serve hot.



Madhur Jaffrey once described Appam as a marriage between a French crepe and an English muffin. This classically Keralite dish consists of rice batter mixed with coconut and fried like a pancake in a wok called cheena chatti (This wok gets its name from the fact that it was historically a Chinese utensil. This shows the influence of the Chinese on this cuisine).


• 1 cup rice

• ½ cup water

• ½ cup coconut milk

• Salt to taste

• 2 tsp.sugar

• Pinch of baking soda

Soak the rice overnight. Drain.

In a blender, blend the rice with 1/2 cup of water and half cup of coconut milk. Place the batter in a bowl.

Take about 3 tablespoons of the batter and place it in a small non-stick pan. Bring it to a boil. Remove from heat and add it back to the main batter. Mix well.

Leave to ferment overnight (see directions under Dosa for fermentation environments).

Add salt, sugar and baking soda to the batter. Mix well. Adjust the consistency if necessary with water (Pancake batter consistency).

Heat a small (about an 8 inch) skillet.


Add about a ¼ cup of the batter.


Swirl the pan so that batter sticks to the sides. It will remain a bit thick at the center (think – French crepe on the sides, English muffin at the center).



Cover and steam for about 2 -3 minutes. Once the appam is cooked, the sides appear lacey and the center is spongy.


Remove gently from the skillet.

Serve hot.


Appams are traditionally served with mutton or chicken stew.


These are another famous South Indian treat. These steamed rice cakes have found a happy home in almost every South Indian restaurant abroad. They are served with chutneys and the tantalizing Indian lentil based Sambhar. Many people swear the best way to eat them is warm, drizzled with hot clarified butter (Ghee).


• 2 cups rice

• ¾ cups white Urad Dal

• Salt – to taste

• For stuffing – Your favorite Indian Pickle *(optional)

• cooking spray


Please note that this dish needs the Idli steamers. You can purchase these at your local Indian grocer or at www.namaste.com. Alternatively you can steam these in small bowls placed in steam baths. These can also be microwaved (a few tablespoons in a glass bowl, and about 4 minutes in the microwave) – although this does alter the taste. They are best steamed.

Soak the rice and dal together for 4 – 5 hours. Drain.

In a blender, blend the dal and rice separately with a few tablespoons of water to a pancake-like consistency. The Dal should be ground very smooth to make the idli light and fluffy.

Mix the ground dal and rice together and let it sit to ferment overnight. Add salt to taste and mix well.

Using a cooking spray such as Pam, grease the Idli steamers. Now heat water in a deep pan (the pan needs to be deep enough to hold the steamers and it needs a lid).

Place a few tablespoons of batter in each holder



If you are going to prepare stuffed Idlies, pour in about a tablespoon of the batter and add half teaspoon of the pickle and then top it off with more Idli batter. (You can use any thick chutney like Mint, Coriander, Tomato or anything of your choice.)



Place the steamer inside the deep pan. Cover and steam for about 7 – 8 minutes. Idlies are done (like cakes) when they pass the toothpick test.


Uncover. Sprinkle a few drops of water on the idlies.


Remove with a sharp knife.


Serve hot.

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