Made lovingly in household kitchens, sold as street food, eaten in udipis and premium restaurants alike, few dishes are as timeless and popular across India as the unassuming idli. What’s surprising is that the dish does not originate from India!
Food historian K.T. Achaya reckons that the idli could have come to India around 800-1200 CE from present day Indonesia, a part of which was then ruled by Hindu kings belonging to the Shailendra, Isyana and Sañjaya dynasties. In fact, idli is very similar to a preparation called the kedli there and Indian cooks from the royal household may very well have returned home with the recipe.
Achaya also notes that a form of idli known as iddalage is mentioned in a 920 CE Kannada language work, Vaddaradhane by Shivakotiacharya. Similar recipes have also been found in later writings, such as the Sanskrit Manasollasa written by King Someshvara III in 1130 CE which details a recipe called iddarika. But the three elements of modern idli making are missing in these references: use of rice grits along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix, and steaming the batter for fluffiness.
These origins are debated by food historian Lizzie Collingham who claims a different origin for the dish. Based on references available at the Al-Azhar University Library in Cairo, Collingham suggests that Arab traders in the Southern belt brought in the idli when they married and settled down. According to Encyclopaedia of Food History, edited by her and TV-chef Gordon Ramsay (Oxford University Press) and Seed to Civilisation -The Story of Food by Heiser Charles B (Harvard University Press), the Arab settlers were said to be strict in their dietary preferences and insisted on halaal (food and drink permissible or lawful in traditional Islamic law) food. They started to make rice balls as a safe option, to avoid any confusion. These rice balls would be slightly flattened and eaten with bland coconut gravy. These rice cakes are said to have tasted quite different from the idlis we eat today.
The process of mixing urad dal and rice grains and fermenting the mixture seems to be later innovation, as there are no references to this method being invented at a particular time.
But despite the confusion over its origins, idli is today one of the most popular preparations in India and over the years has inspired many variants. From the huge, plate sized thatte idlis, to ‘mini’ idlis; the Goan sannas , the Mangalorean khotigge and mudde idlis steamed in leaves, this versatile dish is relished across the subcontinent.
Did You Know?
The Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) has developed ‘space idlis’ along with a chutney powder and sambar powder for astronauts as part of India’s first manned space mission.