Tracing the origins of Idli

4 mins December 16, 2019

In South India, the idli is the star of the breakfast table. But it is also relished all over India as a hugely popular snack best savoured with sambar and tangy coconut chutney. Sold as street food by your friendly neighbourhood vendor, the top listing on menus in the ubiquitous udipi eatery, and also served in a more contemporary avatar in premium restaurants, the fluffy, steamed rice cake has a distinctly timeless quality.

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But this life-affirming staple of the Indian palate may not have originated in South India, after all. While both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu claim to have invented the recipe, food historian K T Achaya believes the idli probably arrived in India from present-day Indonesia around 800-1200 CE.

The region we now call Indonesia was once ruled by Hindu kings of the Shailendra, Isyana and Sañjaya dynasties, and cooks accompanying the royals on their visits to India probably brought the recipe along with them. Acharya points out that Indonesian cuisine has a long tradition of consuming fermented and steamed foods, and the kedli appears to be the closest relative of the idli.

Achaya admits that a version of the idli known as ‘iddalage’ is mentioned in a 920 CE Kannada language work, Vaddaradhane by Shivakotiacharya. Similar recipes have been found in later writings, such as the Sanskrit Manasollasa written by King Someshvara III of the Deccan in 1130 CE. The text details a recipe called ‘iddarika’.

Despite these references, here’s what makes the kedli a later but stronger contender as the ancestor of the idli – the three elements of the modern idli are missing from these medieval Indian texts, that is, the use of rice grits along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix, and steaming of the batter for fluffiness.

[Also Read: Jalebi - Swirls of History]

Further supporting the Indonesian origin theory is the close ties between India and South East Asia in ancient times, although, with time, the kedli seems to have disappeared from Indonesian kitchens.

But here’s a delicious twist in the idli tale. Using references at the Al-Azhar University Library in Cairo, food historian Lizzie Collingham traces the idli to Arab traders who settled on the South Indian coast in medieval times. According to the Encyclopaedia of Food History, edited by Collingham and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (Oxford University Press), and Seed To Civilisation – The Story of Food by Heiser Charles B (Harvard University Press), the Arab settlers insisted on consuming only halaal (food and drink permissible by Islamic law) food. They found rice balls a safe option. These rice balls were slightly flattened and eaten with bland coconut gravy.

However, as Acharya would point out, the process of mixing urad dal and rice grains, and fermenting the mixture seems to be a later innovation even though there are no references to this process being invented at any particular time.

Regardless of where it came from, the idli has inspired many variants over the centuries. From the huge, plate-size thatte idlis, to ‘mini’ idlis, and Goan sannas, Mangalorean khotigge and mudde idlis steamed in leaves, this versatile dish is unarguably an Indian culinary treat.

So, the next time you plan to set out on the hunt for the ‘original’ idli when you are in South Asia or the Middle East, don’t forget to carry your Forex card from Axis Bank, which allows you to pay in 16 currencies, making it your best travel accessory.

Did You Know?

The Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) has developed ‘space idlis’ along with chutney powder and sambar powder for astronauts as part of India’s first manned space mission.

Disclaimer: This article has been authored by Live History India Digital, a Mumbai based Digital Content Company. Axis Bank doesn’t influence any views of the author in any way. Axis Bank & Live History India Digital shall not be responsible for any direct/indirect loss or liability incurred by the reader for taking any financial decisions based on the contents and information. Please consult your financial advisor before making any financial decision.