In the cornucopia of cuisines that live in our country, South Indian breakfast holds a special place and is loved across India. Whether it's starting a busy day of work or ending a fun late-night of concerts, you can always depend on a steaming plate of idlis served with some sambar and chutney to revive you with flavours and comfort. With its popularity and all the variations we've come up with in different regions of India, idli feels like traditional Indian food. But new discoveries reveal that is not the case.
While dosa and vada, the other two beloved South Indian breakfast delicacies, have a 2000-year history is India, idli is relatively new. The recipe of idli was first mentioned in 9th century in the Kannada writings of Shivakotiacharya's journals. But the idli of that era was totally different from the ones we have now in preparation and ingredients. According to the description of 10th century-poet, Chavundaraya, It was made using a batter of black gram flour, buttermilk, and spices like cumin, coriander, asafoetida and black pepper. The three essential aspects of the modern idli — rice, fermentation and steam were missing from this ancient recipe.
According to a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang, who spent many years travelling around India, the Indian people neither knew the method nor had the utensils for the steaming style of cooking. KT Acharya, the oil chemist, food scientist, nutritionist and food historian from Karnataka suggests that the origins of idli most probably lie in Indonesia, which at the time already had a rice steamed dish called kedli, homophonous to idli.
The Indonesian 'kedli' had the key characteristics of how idli-making process now — rice, fermentation and steaming. From the 7th to the 12th century, many Hindu kings ruled Indonesia used to come India on holidays, to meet their relatives or find brides for themselves. These kings used to have chefs who travelled with them and brought the Indonesian recipe of kedlis to India. And hence the modern method of preparing idli was derived from kedli.
Idlis have become staple Indian breakfast food. They are gluten-free, probiotic, rich in nutrients and fibre, low in calories and fat and a source of iron, potassium, calcium and vitamin A. Served with sambar, which is basically a seasoned concoction of all the goodness of veggies and chutneys that can either be from coconuts or peanuts and sometimes even tomato, idlis are a wholesome meal. In the south they're also accompanied by some karam podi, a tan red powder full of flavours made by roasting and grinding lentils on low flame.
From rava idli, ragi idli, podi idli, beetroot idli, chocolate idli, stuffed idli, Schezwan idli to thatte idli; we have fused idli into our own cuisine and culture and given birth to its many variations. Kedli has indeed a come a long way.