Food. Thought.

I am still a little surprised. Shocked to admit, in fact.

This is what happened today. We were in a mall and decided to dine out. While the rest of the family ordered pizza and eyed other delicious options, I walked up to Mr. Idli counter in the food court and ordered a plate of idlis; for dinner; dining out!!

I wouldn’t have imagined myself opting for idlis for dinner. Not last year. Not last month.

I admit it is odd for a South Indian, a Tamilian, to dislike idlis, the steamed fermented rice cakes, a popular breakfast fare in South India. But then too much of a good thing can have this effect. You see, I grew up on a staple of idlis. Morning after morning, I would wake up to the steamed bland idlis with only the accompaniment varying from day to day. Even today, there is always a batch of idlis at breakfast and dinner irrespective of what else might be cooking at my parents’ house.

My brother and I would try protesting. With our limited powers the protests quickly withered out. After a few years of futile attempts, we grew up, resolved to avoid idlis once we spread our wings in the world.

For my poor mother of course, idli was the easiest option on a week day. Especially for a working mother, as it required little work compared to other breakfast options. On Sundays, the weekly off, we would get treated to dosas, pooris and on special occasions idiyappams.

So idli became a boring food. Mundane. Ordinary.

It took me years of being away from home and tasting the lifeless idlis in other places and finally living abroad to really appreciate this simple, comfort food. I still remember the delight of every taste bud when I was served idli for breakfast in the Jet Airways flight from Mumbai to Chennai on my first trip home after living in the U.S. (probably one of the rare moments when airlines food tasted heavenly).  I was a half-hearted convert. I stopped protesting against idlis at home, but that is where I drew the line. Dining out meant escaping the ordinary; crispy long dosas with tasty sambar and varieties of chutneys to dip in.

But today Idli earned its righteous place it so very well deserves. After a bout of series of illnesses, I was staying off dairy, greasy or coarse food. That leaves a very few options for a vegetarian and hence I reached out to the time tested “safe” option of idli. To my surprise, I even enjoyed the first piece, in hindsight most probably because I was starving and still feeling a little sick. By the time I closed in on the second, my hunger pangs disappeared, senses took over and I woke up to the blandness, mundane nature of what I was consuming. Ah, well!

This little introspection into my relationship with idlis, led me to research a little. Best idlis are made with 4 parts par-boiled rice and 1 part black lentils, soaked, ground and allowed to ferment overnight. The batter rises in quantity overnight due to fermentation and is then steamed in special molds. They can be made in batches and hence an easy choice when you have to feed a hungry family. Idli is also a convenient food. Steam it, pack it and eat it with a spoon – ideal for travel.

For its simplicity and mundane nature, idli packs a lot of positives.

  • It just has 60 calories per piece and packs 2 gm of protein and 2 gm of fibre within that. A great vegan, gluten-free breakfast option
  • Because of fermentation and steaming, it is easy to digest. Usually the go-to option when someone is sick
  • It has low glycemic index and ideal for diabetics
  • Did I already mention it is easy to make and easy to pack for travel?
  • My Dad always orders a plate of idli when we go out for breakfast. His logic – Idlis are easy to make and serve and hence will be served faster. He would munch on them as starters until his real breakfast arrives.

I knew all of this. When I researched further, I learnt some interesting things.

Growing up, a popular joke we exchanged was that the Western Physicists invented Power engines and locomotives with steam whereas Tamilians invented idlis with steam. But alas, that doesn’t seem to the case. I discovered this well written blog on the subject that claims – surprise, surprise – idlis were brought to India from either Indonesia or via Arab settlers!! The blog refers to “kedli”, an Indonesian fermented rice cake which was most likely brought back to India when Indian kings ruled the region. Indonesia has forgotten its kedli whereas we have adopted, reinvented and retained our soft, fluffy idlis.

According to KT Achaya, the well known Indian food historian, 6th century Sangam Tamil literature mentions dosa, but not idli. The first ever probable reference to idli occurs in a Kannada text from 920 AD. (This is one thing I am ok with conceding to Kannadigas. Happy to retain dosas and give up idli ownership). More specific reference to idli occurs only from 1250 AD.

Who would have thought?! Idli still doesn’t top my favourite foods list, but is now sure a respected food after reading the following philosophical explanation by Kanchi Pramacharya:

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.”

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