A plate of warm, aromatic idlis dunked in chutney or sambar and paired with coffee. For any true-blue South Indian, this can be a wonderful start of the day and it’s indisputable in the case of porotta-loving Malayalis too.
A widely made go-to breakfast item on Kerala menu for eons, idli travelled a long way before reaching the State, say historians and chefs. The dish’s origin ownership is claimed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and even Indonesia but stories and historical accounts prove that it was part of Kerala too from 19th century. On World Idli Day, let’s check out how idli reached our plates, its most-loved varieties and interesting presence in the popular culture:
The ‘idli’ route
Historian Hanu G Das says that the invention of ‘steamed food’ is often attributed to Buddhist traditions and thus, it is sometimes said that they bought idli to Kerala.
“There is no concrete historical evidence on how idlis made it Kerala’s menu. However, in writer P Bhaskaranunni’s historical account ‘Pathompatham Nootandile Keralam,’ it is mentioned that idlis arrived in Kerala via Tamil Nadu,” he says.
Renowned chef Suresh Pillai agrees with Hanu and adds, “It’s the southern districts of Kerala like Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, and the central district of Palakkad that had a bigger connection with Tamils from the olden times. So, unlike in other parts of Kerala, idli began as a regular food item made in these areas, much before it travelled past the Ernakulam district."
He says these places even had their own style of idlis from a long time ago. "For example, in the Kollam – Pathanamthitta region, idli is made by steaming it on the leaves of ‘poovarassu’ (portia) tree, mixing the batter with ginger and green chilli,” says the chef.
Similarly, Kerala’s most famous version of the dish, called ‘Ramasseri idli’ has a 200-years-old story. It’s said that weavers belonging to Mudaliar families, who came to Kerala from Tamil Nadu settled in Ramasseri in Palakkad. Apparently, it is women of these families who prepared the ‘Ramasseri idli.’
Mallika Pushparaj, who runs the oldest Ramasseri idli hotel in Elappully, says, “Except for changes in the quality of the rice available, there is no change in the way we prepare the idli. It's the same old dish and people love it for its authenticity, though many are apparently trying to make variations of the same. Even now, people come from far and wide to do projects on the dish, to study it from a historical perspective and also, to simply get a taste.”
Chef Lakshmi Nair is of the opinion that it’s our trade connections with the rest of the world that probably brought idli here.
She says, “There is also a story, according to which an Indonesian king once visited our country and brought his cooks alongside. Our people saw them cooking an item similar to idli, and tried our own hands at recreating it, according to stories.” It’s said that the said Indonesian dish was ‘kedli,’ which food historian KT Achaya also credits as the probable inspiration for idli.
“There is no conclusive proof for any of these stories. It’s also said that idli was made just with urad dal and pepper at first and rice was a later addition,” adds Lakshmi Nair.
Popular cousins of idli
Bengaluru’s popular rava idli, the grainier Udupi idli, Tamil Nadu’s podi idli topped with spicy powders, Kancheepuram idli spiced with ginger and curry leaves, the extra soft and fluffy malligai poo idli, pottikalu idli of Hyderabad that’s made in leaf pockets and the cylindrical Mangalore idli named kotte kadubu are a few of the traditional varieties of the dish.
In the recent times, social media also introduced to us Bengaluru’s ‘kulfi’ idli made on a stick, blue idlis infused with butterfly pea flower essence, millet idlis of Vizag, moong dal idli for weight-loss, lava idli and more into our kitchens and restaurants.
There are numerous other varieties too, thanks to many innovative cooks around us. Regardless, there is no doubt that the traditional, simple version has the most takers.
From ‘Doddali’ to ‘Khushboo idli’
If your idli comes out more ‘muscular’ than expected, it might naturally earn the name ‘doddali’ in Kerala, thanks to the 90s Malayalam movie 'Njangal Santhushtaraanu' in which Jayaram’s character famously mocks a thick idli thus, calling it a combination of dosa and idli.
Meanwhile, it’s anybody’s guess whom the famous extra-fluffy ‘Khushboo idli’ is named after and the fanfare it enjoys across south India.
The simple snack even famously led to a full-blown Twitter spat a few years ago when a British historian - married to a Malayali - opined that idli is ‘boring.’ Even politician Shashi Tharoor, a self-proclaimed idli lover, stepped up to defend the snack with the tough ‘civilisation is hard to acquire’ comment as a retort.
Not surprising, considering that this part of the world even made an ‘ATM’ for idli a few years ago in Bengaluru, which was lauded by the likes of Anand Mahindra.