Do You Know The Real Origin Of Idli? No, It’s Not South India!

Idli and Dosa are the most staple diet or breakfast options in all of India. Idlis are steamed fermented rice batter cakes, served with lentil soup called Sambhar and savoury white coconut chutney. This cuisine in India originates from South India which consists of states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana & Karnataka. 

Sold as street food and breakfast options in many eateries, and also served as more of in its contemporary avatar in high end restaurants, either way the fluffy, steamed rice cake has the timeless quality that nothing can beat. 

This life-affirming staple Indian palate dish, might not be from India after all. Yes, although Karnataka and Tamil Nadu claim to have invented the recipe, food historian and writer K.T. Achaya believes that Idli has arrived in India from Indonesia (present day) at around 800-1200 CE. 

History of Idli:

The region now known as Indonesia was once under the reign of Hindu Kings, Shailendra, Isyana and Sanjaya Dynasties, and them being accompanied by their cook on their frequent visits to India, which marks the entry of the recipe in India. Achaya makes a point, stating Indonesian cuisine has a tradition of having fermented and steamed foods, Kedli is found to be the closest relative of Idli. 

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Achaya mentions that a version of idli called ‘iddalage’ is mentioned in 920 CE. Similar recipes have been found later in 1130 CE, where the text details a recipe called ‘iddarika’. 

Despite these claims, let’s see what makes ‘Kedli’ a stronger contender as the relative of idli. The 3 elements that make Kedli and Modern Idli similar are:

  1. Use of Rice Along with Urad dal and mixing it
  2. Long fermentation of the mix
  3. Steaming the batter for fluffy cakes

Close ties between India and South East Asia are further factors that support the Indonesian origin story. But, it seems with time, Kedli has disappeared from the Indonesian Kitchens.

Arabic Influence:

According to the Encyclopedia of Food History, few Arab Settlers searched of Halaal (Food and drink permissible by Islamic Law) food. They chose rice balls as the safer option. The rice balls were slightly flattened and consumed with bland coconut curry.

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Current State of Idli:

Idli has been an inspiration of many variants over the centuries. From huge plate sized thatte idlis to mini idlis and now peri peri idlis, steamed and served all over the world, this versatile dish is most definitely an Indian culinary treat. 

So, the next time you plan to set ou on a hunt for the most perfect idli while traveling don’t forget to tell your friends where it actually originated from. 

Did You Know?

“Space Idlis” are something that is developed by The Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) along with chutney powder and sambhar powder as part of India’s first Manned Mission.