World Idli Day: Is the most popular South Indian dish even Indian?

Idli with sambar and chutney. Photo: Shutterstock/SAM THOMAS A

The soft and fluffy idli is an indispensable part of South Indian breakfast cuisine. Paired with coconut chutney and flavourful sambar, idli reaches its pinnacle of taste. Moreover, this dish is not only delicious but also wholesome and nutritious. The steamed preparation makes idli a lighter and healthier breakfast option. Interestingly, in South India, idli is not confined to breakfast; it is relished as a light meal any time of the day. However, idli aficionados might be surprised to learn that their beloved dish might not have originated in India. Here's the fascinating 'birth story' of one of India's most cherished dishes, loved by millions.

Sambar with idli. Photo: iStock/mukesh-kumar

Idli's origins

According to studies by renowned nutritionist, food historian, and food scientist K T Achaya, idli originated between the seventh and twelfth centuries in Indonesia. During those days, the dish was called kedli or kedari. Interestingly, Indonesia was ruled by numerous Hindu kings during this period. These kings frequently visited India for religious festivals and special occasions like weddings, often accompanied by their royal cooks. It is speculated that the Indonesian dish "kedli" may have been introduced to India as "idli" during these royal visits.

On the other hand, the 'Encyclopedia of Food History' and 'Seed to Civilization – The Story of Food' suggest that Arabs may have introduced the dish to India. Settling in India, the Arabs primarily consumed Halal dishes and a rice ball, accompanied by a coconut-based chutney.

Kanchi idli is mostly prepared in the vicinity of the iconic temple of Kanchipuram. Photo: iStock/Mahi Ryan

Idli in history

Despite its foreign origins, idli quickly captured the hearts and palates of Indians. References to idli can be found in ancient historical texts. Notably, a recipe for 'iddalige' is mentioned in 'Vaddaradhane,' a seventh-century Kannada prose work. Additionally, idli is referenced in the tenth-century Tamil work 'Periya Puranam.' Legend has it that merchants from Saurashtra introduced the dish to South India in the tenth century, amidst Muhammad of Ghazni's attack on the famed Somnath temple.

Representative image: Indian Food Images/Shutterstock

World Idli Day

Despite its varied origin stories, idli remains the most celebrated South Indian dish globally. March 30th marks World Idli Day, initiated by popular Chennai-based idli caterers, Eniyavan. On March 30, 2015, Eniyavan reportedly made astounding 1,328 varieties of idli, paying tribute to this delicious and nutritious breakfast staple. Additionally, he made a massive 44-kilogram idli that was cut by a government official, leading March 30 to be recognized as World Idli Day.

In conclusion, while idli's origin may be shrouded in historical debate, its status as an iconic Indian dish remains unchallenged. Celebrated worldwide, idli continues to delight food enthusiasts with its irresistible taste and cultural significance.

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