The dish Idli has been one of the most popular foods in south India for centuries. It is fluffy and delicious, especially when served with various chutneys and Sāmbhar. It is a perfect meal to consume anytime.
But, did you know the dish Idli is not Indian? It’s an amazing revelation that a dish that is a south Indian delicacy has had various controversies back in history!
This white wonder has been reinvented over centuries. This dish has truly been a game changer in the way South Indian food has been perceived.
History depicts Idlis as an ingress, perhaps from Indonesia, which is known for its tradition of fermented products like tempeh (fermented soy cakes) and ‘Kedli’ (which is almost like an Idli).
Food historian KT Acharya’s argument is that Idlis are an imported concept from Indonesia. He states in his book “A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food” that in the 7th century; India did not have steaming vessels. Kings from Shailendra, Isyana and Sanjaya dynasties in Indonesia used to hire a lot of cooks from India to staff their households. It is believed that Indian cooks brought back their recipe to home. Similarly, the Indonesian dish ‘Bura’ is also rectangular shaped rice cake cooked with coconut milk served with spicy coconut powder.
The dish Idli is said to be invented in 800-1200 CE. Idli is mentioned in a Kannada book called Vaddaradhane written by Shivakotiacharyathe in AD 920. This book mentions a black gram batter word called “Iddalige.”
Ancient Kannada encyclopaedia, Lokopakara has described the preparation of Idli as a fine paste of soaking black gram with butter milk combined with clear water of curds and spices.
Idlis made of blackgram and buttermilk had no use of rice along with urad dal and the fermentation method and steaming for fluffiness. Chinese traveller Xuanzang on his visit to the country had documented that the steaming method of food was not in practice in India.
The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘Iddarika.’ The Tamils referred to modern day Idli in the 17th century before they were called “Itali.”
There are still many old terms in Tulu, which are now extinct in the Modern Kannada “Baikampadi” (Baikampadi) like “muttukadi.” Hale (old) Kannada and Tulu shared a lot of terms and also shared rice dishes like iddli(iddalige). Many leaf based steamed dishes are identical to iddli. It has been difficult to trace as they are more primitive designs than the modern idli steaming vessels. Tulu dishes like moode, gunda, kotte etc. One might say are the real progenitors of modern Iddlis.
Kudalai Idlis, a 400-year-old recipe, has its origin from Varadhaja Perumal Temple Kanchipuram. It was steamed and cooked in a bamboo basket.
There is also an Arab settler who brought Idli as a dish to India. Food historian, Lizzie Collingham, had noticed the Arab traders were very strict about their meal and diet and mostly insisted on having halal food. Colingham, regarding Al-Azhar University in Cairo, adds that Arab traders made flattened rice balls as a reliable alternative.
Idlis have travelled a long way from tatte idlis to mini idlis, from the steam in leaves to the steamed vessels.
And before anyone asks, Dosas have been consumed in Tamil Nadu since the very first century. Dosa Addai makes a regular mention in Sangam (Tamil Literature).
Now it’s time to gobble some Idlis! Check out this recipe and relish in the simplicity of the dish!