The food as we know it today has come after centuries of cultural influences. We believe food has memories and through tracing that history, we want to bring out the stories that the foods hold, how they are adapted and have made their way to dining tables across the globe, in their current form.
As the first of many, we start with the South Indian favorite — Idly.
We asked our followers on Instagram about the origin of Idly — if it was Indian or otherwise, almost 77% of total votes chimed in unison that idly originated in India. What is the actual story behind origin of this quintessential breakfast dish?
There are multiple stories around the origin of idly, and let’s unwrap one by one!
Breaking down the current-day idly into sizable chunks to trace the historical origins, we have:
the use of rice
the process of fermentation for long periods
steaming them to cook the batter.
This leaves us with two origins, one from Indonesia and the other from Arabs.
Indonesia has been famous for steamed and fermented food like Kue, Tempeh, Tapai, Ketupat, Lontong. Borrowing a thought from KT Acharya, he suggests that idly made its way here from modern-day Indonesia. The food that possibly emerged in a quest for love. It is believed that around the 8th century, an Indonesian King came to India to find himself a bride. With him came his cooks, who prepared ‘Kedli’. It is believed that this fermented food was made by steaming rice. While we do not know if he was successful in his quest, with his visit, these two cultures married. This story remains a theory.
Another thought from Lizzie Collingham, suggests that Arab traders who settled in the Southern Belt brought in idly, though not as we know it today. They insisted on having halaal and pegged on to the rice balls as the safe option. These balls were slightly flattened and had with coconut gravy. These undoubtedly tasted different. The food was later innovated with urad dal and fermentation of the mixture.
The Chinese Monk and traveler Hiuen Tsang left accounts about India when he visited King Harsha Vardhana. Coming from a culture that was familiar with steaming food, he noted that he could not find any steaming equipment used for cooking in India. This school of thought bows out with the usage of cloth while steaming idly. This method is still in use.
Local History — Mentions in Historical Texts
As we browse through our local history, we find mentions that could lead us to idly. A 9th or 10th century Kannada scholar Shivakoti Acarya who lived during Rashtrakuta rule mentioned about ‘iddalige’ in his texts. Chavundaraya II who lived during Chalyuka Empire Jayasimha II documented that iddalige was prepared by making a paste of soaked black gram in buttermilk, mixing it with the curd whey and spices. In the 12th century, Chalyuka‘s King and Scholar Someshwara III, in his Sanskrit literature mentions a food called ‘iḍḍarikā’ which he describes to be ‘light coins of high value’. But we have no detailed information about the food. Around the 17th century, Tamil literature mentions ‘itali’ in the literary work of Maccapuranam.
Later when the silk weavers moved in from Saurashtra to South India they brought with them ‘Idada’, a Gujarati Dish, which is very close to modern-day idly. We believe that Idada could have been influenced by Iddalige especially since Chalukyas and Rastrakutas had ruled over these communities.
As we were looking up the history of idlies, we could not help but wonder how culture impacts food, the confluence, and ideas that have spread across the globe. It is a delight to trace the multiple origins of this food and its inspiration to become the current version.
Mavalli Tiffin Room invented Rava during the second world war, with the short supply of rice, they used semolina (Rava) and created Rava idly.
Mangalore’s preparation of Idlis in Moode is rather curious. The batter is steamed after wrapping it in leaves in a circular structure. Usually, screw pine leaves are used, but the usage of jackfruit, banana, and other leaves are also prevalent. This process infuses brilliant flavours and aromas into the idlies. Does it make you wonder about the Indonesian influence or even vice versa?
Kanchipuram Idly can be considered a spin-off from Mangalore idli or perhaps inspired by Indonesian Cuisine. It has spices mixed and steamed with the batter. What is more interesting is that it is the prasadam at the Varadha Raja Perumal Temple. This temple is a prominent one in Kanchipuram (Vishnu Kanchi) and has been sung by the Alvars (one of the 108 Divya Desams). The tradition is believed to have been originated since the time of Pallavas which predates everything you just read. We are looking for more information on this regard, and we will keep you posted.
And the most recent M Eniyavan has created more than 2000 varieties of idly.
The innovative variants of idly are too many to count!
All images used in this post has prior approval from the owners.