Packaged idli is going places; 400 calories of healthy food in your pocket

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Sushila Ravindranath


Idli has been the ultimate comfort food in south Indian homes forever. It is a healthy, easy-to-consume dish. Made of fermented ground rice and urad dal, it has no great taste on its own. You have to have it with a variety of chutneys, powders and sambar to make it really interesting. It has been breakfast food for school-going children, which they have usually found boring. The dosa has always been considered sexier.

However, by the turn of the century, idli has been gaining name and fame. The millennials have rediscovered it. Idli and idli-making is fast growing to be a big business, creating a lot of opportunities. For the past three years, March 30 is being celebrated as the World Idli Day. The hashtag ‘World Idli Day’ started trending and remained one of the top-3 Twitter trends that day.

The World Idli Day is the brainchild of an autorickshaw driver in Chennai turned idli entrepreneur, Eniyavan, who started out with a small idli shop called Mallipoo Idli in 1997. Mallipoo is the Tamil name of jasmine flower and the best idlis are supposed to be as fragrant and soft as jasmine.

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Eniyavan sells many types of idlis in his shop every day, and has come up with more than 2,000 idli varieties. He has prepared pizza idli to attract children. The purists may not approve, but his idlis are proving to be popular. He caters to weddings and other large functions.

The city has always had small and large eateries serving idlis. Not all offered quality products. Long queues used to form to get the best ones from hole-in-the-wall places. While idli sambar was de rigueur in five-star hotel breakfast menus, they could never get the taste of the idli right.

In 2014, Murugan Idli Shop entered the city. Its promoter is from Madurai city, known for quality idlis. The restaurant started serving fluffy soft white idlis with other popular south Indian items. Murugan Idli became so popular that it now has many branches in the city, and has also spread its wings to Singapore and the UK.

The traditional way of making idli batter is arduous. Wet grinders from Coimbatore and idli pans fitting into pressure cookers have made life easier. To make idli-making even more simple, ready-made long-lasting idli batter is now available over the counter. Bangalore-based PC Mustafa’s iD Fresh Food’s ready-made idli dosa batter is a runaway success with a Rs 200 crore turnover.

Five years ago, idli went high-tech when RU Srinivas launched the Idli Factory. Srinivas was an award winning chief executive of Caliber Point, a BPO. An MBA and an ACA, he had been a professional for 30 years. As he was climbing up the career ladder, he was travelling incessantly. He found that if you were travelling for a living, finding food at odd hours was proving to be a real challenge. “I was exhausted, I wanted to do something different. I decided to move from a BPO to a KPO (Kitchen Product Outsourcing).”

Idli has had its origins in Karnataka. The first reference to idli was made in a cook book published by a Mysore king 1,300 years ago. “I always imagined from my school days carrying food in my pocket like a geometry box. The geometry box was my inspiration for packaging. I wanted people to pick up idlis, put them in pockets, and walk away. I took the plunge when I went with a friend for breakfast to a restaurant and we were paying through our nose for a couple of idlis. I realised that the cost of idli was nothing compared to the infrastructure surrounding it—such as the packaging, the middlemen and distribution, and so on.”

Srinivas set up a centralised kitchen. He was literally thinking out of the box, changing the shape of the idli, and its packaging, making it dry, non-messy and easy to carry. He set up a central kitchen, invested in simple machinery to make idlis on scale. For a couple of years, it remained a casual operation. Then came the breakthrough. “The airport started stocking our idlis. Then the Indian Railways started showing interest. We are on railway platforms. This was the gateway to an unimaginably large market with low margins.”

The fun phase for Idli Factory was over. Srinivas got into the excel sheet mode. “I approached a pharmacy chain and asked them to offer my idlis. It’s like selling candies and chocolates over the counter. I was finding different channels for the idli.”

As Srinivas points out, there are no set rules for making idlis. “It’s not like preparing scotch whisky.” He says his idlis are a product of a lot of research. He guarantees that they will stay fluffy for 24 hours. He offers several varieties including the very traditional Kanchipuram idlis. They have been given names like Madras Bars, Madras Roundtana and so on. There are no preservatives in these idlis. The packaging is biased on the geometry box of his dreams. “You can carry 400 calories of healthy food in your pocket.”

Having broken even in a small way, Srinivas is on an expansion mode. “There is a lot of demand for Idli Factory idlis all over the country and abroad also. I need to raise more funding to grow big. There are over 25 states in India. If I set up four kitchens in each state, which will service 25 kiosks, it will be a big business. Everybody is considering healthy food options. In the next five years, there will be a scramble for healthy food. My only competition will be from aunties making idlis at home.”

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