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June 2, 2021

The Story of Idlis

Growing up every South Indian child remembers eating idli in many different ways. Idli is considered healthy, nutritious, and easy on the tummy (digestion); hence, it’s a friend to both mom and child alike. 



Plain idlis with tomato chutney

Traditionally, idli is made of soaked lentils and rice ground and fermented, and ladles of the dough steamed on Idli plates the next day. Many varieties of idlis are made with lentils and different grains in the 4 to 5 southern states of India; namely Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana. It became so popular that these days you can eat them all over India as well as abroad.


One of my fondest memories of eating idlis (aka steamed spongy white dumplings by westerners) is with sugar and a ton of ghee (clarified butter) drizzled on it for extra flavor. That sounds good right about now! 


After all these years of making Idli, I was intrigued by a news article on Idli in a science magazine that India has developed a recipe for Idli to be enjoyed by their crew in Space. Idli undergoes a technological makeover as a space food; cool for a traditional mundane food!!


Reading this article made me think about how Idli came into existence? What was its history? I immediately sought help from Google. According to food historian K.T. Achaya, Idli probably arrived in India from present-day Indonesia around 800-1200 CE. The region we now call Indonesia was once ruled by Hindu kings of the Shailendra, Isyana, and SaƱjaya dynasties, and cooks accompanying the royals on their visits to India probably brought the recipe along with them. Acharya points out that Indonesian cuisine has a long tradition of consuming fermented and steamed foods, and the Kedli appears to be the closest relative of the Idli. Also supporting the Indonesian origin theory is the close ties between India and Southeast Asia in ancient times, although, with time, the Kedli seems to have disappeared from Indonesian kitchens.

 

However, there’s another twist in the Idli tale. Using references at the Al-Azhar University Library in Cairo, food historian Lizzie Collingham traces the Idli to Arab traders who settled on the South Indian coast in medieval times. According to the Encyclopedia of Food History, edited by Collingham and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (Oxford University Press), the Arab settlers insisted on consuming only halal (food and drink permissible by Islamic law) food. They found rice balls as a safe option. These rice balls were slightly flattened and eaten with bland coconut gravy.


 

However, as Acharya pointed out, the process of mixing Urad dal and Rice grains, and fermenting the mixture seemed to be a later innovation even though there weren’t any references to this process being invented at any particular time. 



Regardless of its origin, Idli has become a popular South Indian breakfast item, which is commonly eaten with sambhar and coconut chutney. We enjoy eating idlis with tomato chutney as well as chutney powder (aka gunpowder). 






We hope you enjoyed reading about the Story of Idlis. We will be discussing more on idlis in Part 2, so please stay tuned...