Dosas and Idlis: Turn Beans to Bread

One of the fastest and easiest bean ferments paves the way for two of India’s traditional dishes.

| Winter 2019

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The objective of fermenting beans is to make them more digestible, unlock their nutrient potential, and give the beans compelling flavors, as well as pleasing textures. For example, soybeans, though renowned for their protein richness, are mostly indigestible by human digestive tracts when raw or unfermented. In this state, we can’t fully absorb their essential amino acids because they’re blocked by rigid cellulose compounds. Fermentation, however, predigests the beans, breaking down the proteins into individual amino acids that we can more easily absorb, while simultaneously breaking down the nutrient-blocking compounds. Fermentation is the most effective way to realize the powerful nutritive potential of legumes, especially soybeans. In addition, when legumes are fermented together with grains, the ferment becomes a complete protein, containing all of the amino acids essential to human nutrition.

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Documentation of bean fermentation goes back thousands of years. Ancient Chinese texts refer to “jiangs” — condiments fermented from beans — as well as to fish, meat, grains, and vegetables. Jiangs come in an elaborate variety and are deeply imbued with meaning. The Analects of Confucius from 500 B.C. instructs readers that “foods not accompanied by the appropriate variety of jiang should not be served. Rather than using only one to season all foods, you should provide many to ensure harmony with each of the basic food types.”

Most bean ferments start just as grain ferments do: by adding water to bring the seed back to life, swelling and awakening dormant microbial and enzymatic activity.

Making a Basic Batter

Dosas and idlis are primarily South Indian foods, made from fermented batter. Dosas are thin pancakes, while idlis are steamed breads, both created from batters born of the same rice-and-lentil ferment, which only takes a day or two to make. The two foods share a wonderful flavor, but boast very different textures. Some compare idlis with matzo balls, but I think they have a distinctive, spongy texture all their own. Dosas and idlis are the easiest, fastest, and most straightforward of the bean ferments.



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