Food historian, KT Achaya’s speculation makes us believe that the idli might have its true ancestry in Indonesia. The present day Indonesia had a strong history of fermented food. Hindu kings of Indianised kingdoms there could have eaten the first modern recipe idli from the hands of their cooks in Indonesia. Achaya talks about the Indonesian dish Kedli, which according to him is akin to the present day idli. The history and origin of this potent sphere is still a bone of contention between the southern states of India. Karnataka thinks it’s their baby and Tamil Nadu lays its claim. There are rumblings from Gujarat as well. Lily tells us more about idli, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
The fragrant aroma of the exotic tasting Sambhar with the perfect blend of oriental spices hits the senses as do the antics of the two spherical objects known as idlis wading in it. This is a scene in a busy Indian Coffee House in Shimla, the queen of the Himalayas. A classic dish to kick start one’s day or to snack on, with the accompaniment of a coconut or tomato based chutney. You could also eat it with clarified butter and a mysterious masala and roasted lentil mix called podi. Platefuls are wolfed down in the Tiffin Centres of the cities of South India. Idli is a traditional breakfast staple in a Chennai household besides being a game changer in the manner in which south Indian food is viewed all over the world now.
A savoury cake hugely popular in India and neighbouring Sri Lanka, idli is made with soaked, fermented, de-husked black lentils and rice, which are later ground to a batter. It is then steamed. The fermenting process breaks down the starches and helps metabolism, besides increasing the nutritional value. The sanna is a variant eaten by Goans and other Konkanis. The Odiyas have something akin to it called Enduri Pitha. When I lived in Hyderabad, I had a friendly neighbourhood vendor, who would come, merrily tinkling his bicycle bell with a can full of soft as velvet idlis. He served them on neatly cut pieces of banana leaf and the coconut chutney always had me panting for more. Idli is by far the most popular munching option as a comfort food as well. Students living away from home on western shores always crave for the caressing texture of a ma ke haathh ki (cooked by mother) idli. An almost perfect one can be made with the packaged varieties now easily available. There are rava (wheat) options too for quick fix moments. My North Indian mother could toss up a mean version with good old suji blended with yoghurt instantly. The satisfied look of a cat that has licked the cream is often seen on faces that have done the same to a plateful of these white darlings.
The history and origin of this potent sphere are still a bone of contention between the southern states of India. Karnataka thinks it’s their baby and Tamil Nadu lays its claim. There are rumblings from Gujarat as well! The word Iddalige finds mention in the Kannada language of Karnataka) writings of 920 AD. Sanskrit, The Manasollasa of 1130 AD refers to iddarika. Both these are made with urad dal flour. The Karnataka uddina idli is perhaps made from the same recipe as mentioned here. Tamil writings start referring to idli or Itali as they call it only in the 17th century. Kannada and Tulu texts may have mentioned idli in the 10th century AD, though there is no proof of that though those days there were separate preparations of black lentils and of rice. The modern recipe makes an appearance in Indian works after 1250 AD. The food historian K T Achaya feels that there seems to be no mention of three important and key aspects of idli making in the earlier texts mentioned. Firstly, no rice grits seem to have been mixed in the lentils, there was no fermentation and they were not steamed for its present fluffy avatar.
Achaya’s speculation makes us believe that the idli might have its true ancestry in Indonesia. The present day Indonesia had a strong history of fermented food. Hindu kings of Indianised kingdoms there could have eaten the first modern recipe idli from the hands of their cooks in Indonesia. Achaya talks about the Indonesian dish Kedli, which according to him is akin to the present day idli.
Another interesting thing that comes up is the mention in a Gujarati writing, Varanaka Samuchaya, of idari and its local adaptation idada, which is the fermented version of dhokla. This was 1520 CE. Maccapuranam, the Tamil work that mentions Itali or idli is from the 17th century.
Mothers in the southern states of India still lure their little ones at breakfast time by telling them to eat these soft as cotton balls and white as the pretty moon idlis. The reward often is the last one soaked in ghee and sugar.
So whether it is a Malligai idli, Kambu idli, Kanchipuram idli, Sago idli, Rava idli, Bullet idli, Cocktail idli, Button idli, Carrot idli, Vegetable idli, Ragi idli, Cornmeal idli or even if it is the upma made out of left over idli, this little sweetheart of a moon-faced baby is making waves the world over. It has a shot in the arm now as a health food that is super cool if you are trying to lose the pounds as it is steamed as well as nutritious.
So take a bite, roll your eyes and exclaim with an appropriate accompanying gesture, “Romba nandri!”
Photo from the internet.