Monday, July 19, 2010

Idli is not Indian..

 Source- Hubpages

First of all thank you all for the encouragement and support. For a real lazy bum like me, it means a lot and fuels my research and drive to write more. One of my friend even christened me with the term culinary anthropologist--I didnt even know such a term existed. But what the heck, it sounds all important. But yeah, Im not so vain to believe that I can be one just like that. Maybe some day--Sigh!. Many of you were asking where is the next post. I actually had this one almost ready for sometime now. But was waiting for an amazing resource book which I had ordered through Amazon. Its by this amazing food historian (probably the only one India has ever seen) K T Achaya. He actually inspired me to go beyond the trivias of our foods. So this post is dedicated to him. Some of you must have read articles about him and most of them were about his findings on a dish which a lot of us hold dear to our heart-- Idli.

I am yet to find out people who dont like idlis. This soft, fluffy, little round piece of magic is one of my favourite breakfast items. (Not that, I cant gulp it down other times too).
Idli in short is a South Indian savory cake . The cakes are usually two to three inches in diameter and are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented  black lentils (de-husked) and rice. The fermentation process breaks down the starches so that they are more readily metabolized by the body. (Source- Wikipedia) This process relies almost entirely on the weather to change a batter of ground rice and split peas into a light froth, which then only requires a quick steaming to become a deliciously light, highly nutritious, and very digestible breakfast.
(Trivia-- There are 64 calories in a piece of idly (depending on weight) and it is more nutritious than a dosa)

Story of Idli

K T Achaya’s theory is that idlis are a relatively recent introduction to India, and it might have actually come from Indonesia.He notes that the word might derive from ‘iddalige’, first mentioned in a Kannada work (Vaddaradhane) of 920 AD, but the indications are that this was made from an urad dhal batter only, which was neither fermented, nor steamed to fluffiness.

The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but again made from urad dhal flour only.  It actually describes iddarika as made of fine urad flour fashioned into small balls and then spiced with pepper powder, cumin powder and asafoetida. In Karnataka, a century later, the idli is described as being 'light, like coins of high value.'. 
In Tamil, the ' itali' makes only a late appearance, in 17 th century AD (in Maccapuranam).

All these references, Achaya notes, leave out three key aspects of idlis: “the use of rice grits along with urad dhal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness.” 

Then how did the modern idli evolve?
Achaya contends that only after 1250 AD are there references to what seem to be idlis as we know them. Achaya’s contention is that this absence from the historical record could mean that idlis are an imported concept — perhaps from Indonesia.

But again, why Indonesia? 
Hindu kings from Indonesia, a country where fermenting is quite common, often came to India between the 8th and the 12th centuries, looking for brides. The cooks with them, suggested Achaya, brought the technique that changed the character of this breakfast delight. Indonesia  has a long tradition of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (from where we get ketchup) or something called kedli, which Achaya says, is like an idli. This is plausible enough given the many links between Southeast Asia and South India, through Hindu rulers and traders.

Is that the only version of the story??
No.Many critics also contend that just because of the absence of literature of a particular dish cannot rule out its existence in a region. (They so badly want idli to be Indian.;)).Remember the Kannada book which had ' iddalige'--(Read above)--Some linguistic experts say, Many old words appearing in the Vaddaradhane,but extinct now in modern Kannada, are existing still in Tulu even now.Like "muttukadi","baikam"(Baikampadi) etc.Apparently, old Kannada and Tulu shared many words at that time;maybe they also shared rice dishes like iddli (iddalige). We are handicapped by the absence of Tulu texts dating back to 10th C. AD or older ones.
Compare this with the numerous leaf based steam cooked Tulu rice dishes similar to iddli in technology.However it is difficult to trace the antiquity of these leaf-wraped precursors of iddlis.
Since,leafy vessels are more primitive designs than the more modern iddli cooking vessels, so many would argue that these Tulu disheslike moode,gunda,kotte etc., were the actual ancestors of the modern iddlis.

Ok- they might be ancestors, but not the real deal right. So we are now left to believe Iddli is indeed a gift from the Indonesians. And here is why.

Its all about fermentation...

Whether imported from Indonesia or invented in India, it’s worth noting how unique the idli fermentation process is. Its sometimes assumed that it’s like bread fermentation for bread, so it could be facilitated by yeast. Restaurants abroad often do this, as Mumbai hotelier V V Kamat discovered while working as a young man in a London restaurant. But as he notes in his lively autobiography, titled Idli, Orchid and Will Power, “the idlis made there were like stone.” He surreptitiously started making them the proper way, leaving unleavened batter to ferment overnight, and the problem was solved.

This extraordinary phenomenon is explained by Harold McGee, a food science expert- Leavening is often thought of as just being a matter of producing gas bubbles, through chemical substances like baking powder, or biological ones like yeast. But as important as making bubbles is trapping them, which is what elastic gluten proteins do in bread made from wheat. Rice has little gluten, so something else is needed and this McGee suggests is provided by bacteria similar to the ones that make yoghurt, which work in idli batter alongside gas producing organisms to thicken it enough to trap the bubbles. Yeast might work too fast, producing bubbles that would escape because the batter wasn’t thick enough yet.
Only overnight fermentation would result in the perfect light, slightly sour batter that is steamed to made idlis. Light, wholesome, low in fat, well balanced between carbs and proteins, perfectly textured to absorb spicy sauces like sambar or cool chutneys. 

So apparently, we Indians didnt know of this fermentation process till the Indonesian kings came to find brides.And as usual, we embraced the dish and the process and made it our own.

Oh..We didnt have vessels too

Another reason purported in favour of idlis immigration is the lack of steaming vessels in India in 7 th century AD. Remember Xuan Zang, whose exploits we had to painfully mug up during our history classes, was categorical in stating that India did not have a steaming vessel. (Who knew travellers whould actually take note of vessels?) 

But then again, critics say that steaming can be achieved by much more simplistic techniques. Like tying a cloth on top of any vessel used to cook with boiling water in it essentially works as steaming. Now, I think from time immemorial people had been doing just that. Chinese started with bamboo steamers. So do you really need vessels to replicate steaming process??

Chutney powder to go along with.. ( aka addendum)
I actually set out to search for idli like foods in other cuisines and was surprised to find almost all of them had some kind of steamed cake and some even fermented too. It will take a whole new post to document that.

So I thought I will conecentrate my efforts on just Indonesian cuisine- Does a 'kedli' exist which Achaya said is the ancestor or sibling of Idli?
Unfortunately, I couldnt find any kedlis there. Though I found Bura,  rice cooked in coconut milk, served with spicy coconut powder
 Ok, it looks more like rectangular idli-ilayappam, but dont we also eat idlis with chutney powder? If you know of more similar dishes, especially in Indonesian cuisine, do comment.

Idlis are also  offered as nivedyam (food offering) on Ganesha chathurthi day ( in some parts of India, especially South) - although the special idli is made from paccha arisi (raw rice), deviating from the norm, since the commonly made idli from puzhungal arisi (pre-cooked, rice par-boiled with the husk) is considered "impure" or un-offerable as it violates the principle of offering only fresh made things in cooked food to the Lord. 

Kanchi Paramacharya also offers a philosophical twist to the whole idli condundrum. 
"The term iduthal (in Tamil) refers to keeping something set and untouched. We call the cremation ground idukaadu (in Tamil). There we keep the mrita sarira (mortal body) set on the burning pyre and then come away. The term iduthal also refers to refining gold with fire. The (Tamil) term idu marunthu has a similar connotation: a drug given once without any repetition of dosage. In the same way, we keep the iddly wet flour on the oven and do nothing to it until it is cooked by steam."

(Wow. That sure is deep
And well, then we all lived happily ever after eating idlis..;).


Vircabutar have also provided some extra information on idlis- 
One of the indonesian fermented, steamed cake is called "kue mangkok."This also kind of attributes to the origin of Idli from Indonesia.
There are a lot of variety of idlis. A collection of recipes is attached. 

Note- I have tried all of them except Ramasseri idlis. And you're welcome to give me more idli recipes

Newspaper links and articles- Some interesting ones-- Link1   Link 2  Link 3

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