INDIA. Erode, Tamil Nadu: You must have visited vegetable markets, fish markets, fruit markets, flower markets, and various other kinds of markets. But, what about visiting an IDLI Market?
Yes, an idli market. Let’s talk about it a little…
This is in Erode district near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Almost 20000 idlis are cooked and sold here daily and the count goes up to a hundred thousand on festival and political rally days. Hot idlis with sambhar & varieties of chutneys are served here at almost throwaway prices – 2 plain idlis cost Rs.3.50 (about 0.04 Euros) and with sambhar & chutney, they cost Rs.6.50 (about 0.08 Euros).
What is an idli
Idli, one of the best-known humble food items eaten daily by millions, is an integral part of most south Indian homes. Star of the breakfast table, idli is also relished all over India with sambhar and tangy coconut chutney. Other condiments, mostly chutneys like kaara chutney (onion-based), and non-vegetarian spicy fish curries are also common.
Idli is a complete meal in itself; it is rich in carbohydrates and protein, sugar-free and gluten-free. A soft puff of rice, idli is a healthy treat as it contains no fats, saturated fats or cholesterol, and has great nutritional content. Only 39 calories per piece of about 30 gm, it provides 40 kcal of energy per serving.
Making of Idli
Idli is made by steaming a lightly salted batter consisting of fermented black lentils (a de-husked bean) and polished parboiled rice that gives it a distinct and somewhat sour taste (just like the taste of a sourdough bread). At various times soybean, green gram and chick pea are also used in place of black gram to add nutritional value.
The fermented batter is put in greased special perforated idli moulds/pans of an idli tray and steamed for 8 -10 minutes to give it fluffiness. The perforation in molds allows the idlis to be cooked evenly. Traditionally, idlis were steamed in banana leaves instead of moulds. In modern times, microwave and automatic electric idli steamers with convenient non-stick coating are also in use. With present-day fusion innovations, fusion recipes of Idlis have also come up, such as idli Manchurian, idli fry, chilly idli, stuffed idli, and a lot of other combinations.
An amazing business endeavour
You don’t have to be a multimillionaire to start an idli-making business. Most of the eateries in Erode district started with a small investment, and by using homely skills learned from ladies of older generations at home. Credit for the spread of the soft and fluffy idli goes to women entrepreneurs from Erode district in Tamil Nadu, a district that earlier was famous for its traditionally weaved cotton cloth, innovative food culture, and the entrepreneurial spirit of its residents.
Idli market – source of income for women
When jobs in the traditionally weaved cotton cloth industry declined due to lessening demands because of synthetic cloths, enterprising women of Karungalpalayam, a small place in Erode District started selling idlis, and soon many more followed, developing the area into a sought-after market.
Traditional idli making came in handy for a number of females in Tamil Nadu. “I grew up watching my mother cook them for breakfast every day,” recalls Eswari Thangavel of M/S Praveen Idlis, who learned how to make idlis from her mother, and now is a big name in the idli making industry.
Ms. Chellammal took over Idli making business after there was a decline in her husband’s salary income some forty years back. Chellammal decided to join in by making and selling idli to contribute towards the household income. Idli was not a common breakfast for people in rural areas in those days.
With the sale of idlis picking up, other women in the family also started idli business. Most of these eateries have women staff taking care of day-to-day activities. Men in the family assist women in the eateries by getting the necessary groceries and looking after the deliveries.
The eateries even supply in bulk for marriages & other family functions. Because of their healthy characteristics, idlis are also recommended by doctors in south India for patients and convalescents, and the hospitals in the area are also big buyers.
Other regular customers also speak highly of these idlis, “When we buy from these shops, we are sure that we will get idlis of very good quality, at reasonable rates and on time,” said a happy customer, who places orders regularly.
Business during the pandemic
In normal times, the caterers and customers used to come to Karungalapalayam to collect their orders. With the pandemic hampering movement, and also as there are no meetings and weddings during the lockdown, the demand from locals did come down for a short time. But, since a lot of NGOs and other organisations are feeding needy and poor people during lockdowns, the demand has in fact increased and these women entrepreneurs are confidently doing business and supplying hundreds of idlis every day.
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