The idli doesn’t need defenders. The white, spongy disc, usually served with coconut chutney and sambar, has a long history as a beloved food on the subcontinent. It can hold its own against any number of assaults on its reputation, the most recent one being from British history professor Edward Anderson who tweeted that it is the most “boring” thing in the world. We don’t know what Anderson has been eating his idlis with, but to each his own.
In its transformation from the unfermented iddarika as described in the 12th century Sanskrit text Manasollasa, to the modern dish made with fermentation and steaming techniques imported from Indonesia, as chronicled in KT Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, idli speaks of India’s history of exchange with other parts of the world. In the economic sustenance that the cooking and selling of this breakfast staple provides to families across India, the idli encapsulates an Indian entrepreneurial spirit. The invention of rava idli, due to the acute shortage of rice during the Second World War, speaks of a country’s resilience. And the many regional and local variants — the spice-flecked Kanchipuram idli, the soft and flat Ramassery idli, the fragrant kotte kadubu — taste of the creativity that binds together many culinary traditions.
In a country that has still not won the war against poverty, the idli is within reach of almost anyone. The well-off may sit inside restaurants and enjoy their oat-and-ragi idlis while the poor may purchase the usual rice-and-black gram idlis for as little as Re 1. For all these — and other ghee-, sambar- and chutney-soaked reasons — the idli will always be a cherished part of the Indian plate.