WORLD IDLI DAY, on 30 March, was instituted by Eniyavan, an idli maker in Tamil Nadu, in 2015. And every year on that date, the same nugget of information circulates on social media as if it were breaking news: The idli is not originally Indian, according to the late KT Achaya. Who better than Achaya, the widely acknowledged guru of Indian food history, to serve as a lodestar on the story behind this now incontestably Indian snack?
In his Indian Food: A Historical Companion, published in 1994, Achaya explains that a food resembling the idli was first mentioned in Indian literature in the year 920, when a writer named Shivakotiacharya penned the Vaddaradhane. This is a collection of 19 tales, considered the earliest existing work of narrative prose in Kannada. Shivakotiacharya referred to a food called the iddalige, made from urad dal, which was one of 18 items served “when a lady offers refreshments to a brahmachari who visits her home.” In 1025, a poet named Chavundaraya, writing the Lokopakara, a Kannada guidebook that spans topics from cooking to medicine, described an analogous food in more detail, using the instructive language of a cookbook: To make the iddalige, you must soak urad dal in buttermilk, grind it to the consistency of a fine paste, mix it with the clear water of curd, spice it with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida, and then shape it. This is where the instructions, cited by Achaya, end. The reader is not told what it is shaped into, nor whether it is then fried or steamed.
In Sanskrit, Achaya writes, the Manasollasa, a reference book of sorts for life in the Western Chalukya Kingdom, written in 1130 by the king Someshvara III, mentioned small, sculpted balls made from fine urad flour and spiced with pepper, cumin powder and asafoetida, and called iddarika. In 1235, the Kannada writer Kamalabhava, in his Shantiswara Purana, described a food that was “light, like coins of high value”—a description, Achaya claims, “which is not suggestive of a rice base.”
When combing through these texts, Achaya says in Indian Food, he detected a common thread in the early references to the idli. They were missing three elements crucial to the idli as we know it today. Where were the rice grits one mixes with the urad dal? Why did none of these texts mention the vital step of leaving the batter to ferment before cooking it? And where was the steaming of the batter, so cardinal to the idli achieving its featherlike quality?
Achaya puts forth a radical hypothesis: The modern-day idli really has its roots in Indonesia, a country whose culinary lifeblood is fermentation, of everything from groundnuts to fish. Instead of anything indigenously Indian, maybe the idli’s true ancestor was the Indonesian kedli. It could be, he speculates, that the cooks who accompanied “Hindu kings of Indonesia”—presumably the Cholas—on visits home between the eighth and twelfth centuries, brought fermentation techniques with them.