Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

‘Idli originated as the staple carbohydrate fix’: A brief history

People took to Twitter to defend idli after a British professor called it 'boring'

idliJust like dosa, idli has many variations. (Source: getty images/file)

Shashi Tharoor recently wrote on Twitter, “…the taste and refinement to appreciate idlis…is not given to every mortal.” Tharoor’s tweet came amid the debate among netizens on idli, after a British professor called them “the most boring things in the world”.

Even Kamala Harris, whose maternal home was in Tamil Nadu, is known to have a special connection with idli. “Growing up, my mother would take my sister Maya and me back to what was then called Madras…and of course, she always wanted to instill in us, a love of good idli,” she was quoted as saying by PTI.

Whether one likes idlis or not is a personal choice but before engaging in the hullabaloo, let us briefly take a look at the history of this South Indian staple.

Food historian Kurush Dalal told, “The South has not been cultivating rice for more than 3000 years. So idli cannot de facto be more than 3000 years old. And when we actually started fermenting rice batter and steaming it the next day is another factor.”

Scholars have come up with various theories about the origin of idli. Food historian KT Achaya, for instance, argued that idlis could have come to India around 800-1200 CE from present-day Indonesia while being ruled by Hindu Kings belonging to Shailendra, Isyana and Sanjaya dynasties, mentions in an article. Another food historian Lizzie Collingham claimed they were brought to South India by Arab traders who married and settled there. They insisted on halaal food and opted for rice balls as a safe option, slightly flattened and eaten with bland coconut gravy.


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Food history is typically accompanied by the 3Cs – Contention, Controversy & Claims. . Today’s star – Idli is no exception to this. While there are different claims to its origin & regionality, prominent food historian KT Achaya notes that our Food encyclopedias – Vaddaradhane by Sri Shivakoti Acharya & later the Manasollasa by King Someshvara III mention Iddalige & Iddarika respectively. However both variants used only Black gram or Urad dal, not the rice grits that form the better half (not by measure of course) of the batter ingredients. As a result, the original idli was greyish in colour & was cooked on a griddle, not steamed. The idli we know today is attributed more to an Indonesian influence, specifically inter-marriages between Southern Indian kings & Indonesian royal families who followed the same religion & extensively traded with them. This cultural melange brought in the idea of steam-cooking idlis into the mainstream, refining the batter along the way. Today let’s talk about Rawa Idli. Few years back, I visited the iconic Mavalli Tiffin Room(Lalbagh) in Bangalore or MTR as it’s popularly known, for a show shoot. As I made my way through the teeming crowd, waiting for my turn to be served, I felt heady by the aroma of ghee-topped Rawa idlis being devoured by the patrons around me. It was truly an effort to keep my palate nerves calm! MTR’s third-generation co-owner Hemamalini Maiya briefed me about its origin. History has it that during the 1940s or specifically around the World War II, there was a shortage of rice. It was a severe challenge for people who survived on the humble idlis. According to Hema Malini, her Great Grand Uncle came up with the idea of using rava (Sooji or semolina) as a rice substitute. The best part about it is it doesn’t need fermentation time like its older sibling. Adding buttermilk or yogurt, which is broadly & easily available, helps the rawa fluff up that makes up for the fermented touch. Rice grits or Rawa, Indian or Indonesian, Idli for me stands as yet another example of a dish beautifully adopted & adapted by our cuisine. So are you enjoying your idlis today? Do share your pics :) #WorldIdliDay #FoodFables

A post shared by Ranveer Brar (@ranveer.brar) on Mar 30, 2020 at 4:34am PDT

The process of mixing urad dal and rice grains and fermenting the batter, however, was a later innovation.

Read | Want to make perfect, fluffy idlis? Keep these tips in mind

Idli has many variations, just like dosa. Essentially, any rice batter that is fermented and is steamed, irrespective of what goes into it, is idli, Dalal stated. “There are idlis that are wrapped in leaves and made and are perhaps some of the oldest idlis; the aluminium trays in which we make idlis is a very modern concept. Originally, idlis would have been made by suspending them over a lattice made of twigs and placed on top of a pot, or may have been steamed on large bamboos and various other containers that could have been used for steaming,” he said.


On Twitterati debating over whether idlis are tasty or not, he further said, “Idli was basically the staple carbohydrate fix, it was not meant to be tasty. What was tasty was what idli was served with. Then idli would have things like veggies added to it. You can go to an eatery and have various kinds of idlis from the permutations and combinations.”

In the end, it is all about following the “eat and let eat” policy, urged Dalal. “I know people who cannot stand chapatis, doesn’t mean chapatis are bad,” he expressed.

How do you make idli? Besides the regular rice idlis, here is a healthy ragi idli recipe; you can also try oats idli or suji idli.

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First published on: 09-10-2020 at 01:20:41 pm
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