How Idly Conquered the Globe

How Idly Conquered the Globe

An essay tracing the origins of the ubiquitous Indian dish, Idly. It narrates the story of how idly gained worldwide prominence over the last century.

— 1 — 

IDLY TRUMPS INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY as the greatest success story of globalisation. It is an unparalleled culinary conquest that occurred silently and went unnoticed even as it was occurring. Today, there is no continent where you don’t find idly. 

The contrast cannot be more pronounced. 

Globalisation didn’t just bring the Microsofts and the Googles to India. It also brought monster-like American fast-food chains. Corporatised food-producing factories like KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and McDonalds,’ each spent millions of dollars to first study the Indian market before entering it. Only to ultimately eat humble pie here. Nothing advertises their admission of defeat more loudly than their India-centric menus. Nowhere else in the world would you see a Mazedar Makhni Paneer Pizza, an Ultimate Tandoori Veggie, a Nawabi Murg Makhni, a Dhabe da Kheema, an Indian Tandoori Zinger Burger, an Indian Paneer Zinger Burger or a Tikka Masala Burrito Veg and Non Veg. All that market research money, all those expensive consulting fees given to five-star MBAs from fancy business schools, burnt to ashes by the Indian “market” which decisively rejected the original menus served in America. In my view, the discerning powers of the Indian palate has not been given its due honour. It singlehandedly brought these gigantic American food chains to their knees in an astonishingly swift time, forcing them to reinvent and Indianise themselves.  Thanks to prolonged colonisation, the average Indian initially attached prestige and glamour value to these American fast food chains.  Yet, his tastebuds did not allow him to lie. In general, stepping inside an American style fast food chain is akin to stepping inside the shop floor of a factory. What you get there is a product, not food.   

Even as this was happening, the idly was quietly steamrolling its own charge. Just as the McDonalds and the KFCs of the world were attempting to gastronomically invade India led by an advance party comprising Excel sheets and PowerPoint presentations, the idly had already made an impressive presence in the Western hemisphere. It needed no corporate think tanks and strategists and expensive ad agencies. And it has remained unchanged from the day it was born. It required no “strategising” to customise it to Western tastebuds. 

To my mind, the best tribute that we can pay to the idly is twofold. 

The first is its physical appearance, which resembles the full-rounded, unsullied smile of a cherub. 

The second is its innate and unpretentious purity — the idly is tasteless but irresistible; it is bland but harmless; it causes no stomach upset and is easily digestible; it can be eaten with almost any accompaniment — chutney, curry, broth, pickle…anything. Above all, it takes no real culinary expertise to make it. 

In short, you are powerless to resist the unchallengeable suzerainty of the idly. It is the topmost dish on the menu of any restaurant throughout South India. The same holds true for any restaurant throughout India that serves south Indian food. 

Yet, for all its aforementioned virtuous prowess, the idly’s conquest of the world is a relatively recent story. Just a century ago, idly was a dish largely confined to the Tamil speaking regions. Which is quite intriguing given the fact that the idly’s  origins are Vedic. 

— 2 — 

SRI SEDIYAPU KRISHNA BHATTA, one of the greatest original thinkers and scholars in the realms of language, linguistics, literature, poetry and prosody narrates the full history of Idly in a delightful Kannada essay titled, iḍliya itihāsa. It bears his characteristic imprint — depth and breadth of multidisciplinary scholarship, and meticulous, rigorous reasoning. 

He conducts more than three pages of intense technical investigation into the word Idly. It is a pleasurable and awesome scholastic journey dotted by vivid scenes of socio-cultural history, etymology, morphology and phonology. The following is a condensed version of that travelogue. 

In the fabled Sanskrit-English Dictionary of V.S. Apte, he finds the following words: 

इण्ड्रः iṇḍram, इण्ड्रम् iṇḍram, इण्ड्रवम् iṇḍravam (Dual): Two round small plates used as coverings for the hands in taking the fire-pans from the fire; अथैनमिण्ड्राभ्यां परिगृह्णाति [athainamiṇḍrābhyāṃ parigṛhṇāti] Śat. Br. 

Thus, the earliest mention of the word iṇḍram occurs in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇam, which dates back to at least seven thousand years. And it clearly has connotations related to Yajna. On the physical plane, iṇḍra ( इण्ड्र) was a utensil: two round small plates… this utensil is exactly what is used even today to make Idlis. The number might have increased but the physical form of the utensil remains the same.  

Next, Sediyapu traces the phonetic changes that the word iṇḍra underwent over time and space. It variously became inḍrī, inḍari, iḍḍalige, iḍḍali, and finally, iḍli. 

The earliest mention of the word iḍḍalige in Kannada occurs in the Haḻagannaḍa (Old Kannada) work titled vaḍḍārādhane, which dates back to the 9th century CE.  

From here, Sediyapu delves into a 10th - 11th century CE Ayurvedic treatise titled, cakradattā saṃhita and unearths this verse:

godhāpadīmūlayuktām khādet māṣemḍarīm naraḥ | 

jayet ślīpada rogottham jvaram ghoraṃ na saṃśayaḥ || 

When the root of the godhāpadī plant is mixed with blackgram and ground into a fine powder and the inḍari dish prepared from this mixture is eaten, it cures the terrible fever caused by elephantiasis. 

The verse makes it clear that Idly was prepared in this fashion using blackgram. It is interesting to note that Chakrapanidatta, author of the Cakradattā saṃhita lived in the Gauda-Desha or Bengal.

After this historical detour, Sediyapu returns to 20th century coastal Karnataka — specifically to South Canara (now, Mangalore). Here he finds a popular sweet dish prepared by the Gauda Saraswat Brahmin community. Its name: iṇḍri. It is prepared exactly like idly using the same utensil and its appearance too, fully matches the idly.   

The conclusion of Sediyapu’s extensive investigations into idly is in this explanation for the transformation of iṇḍra into idly: “the sound inis phonetically closer to iṇḍra than it is to inari. Thus, it is plausible that the original phonetic form of the dish prepared in this manner was inrī. The original phonetic form of the Kannada word, idly was iḍḍali, as has already been noted. Because the compound sound, ḍdoes not lend itself well in the Kannada langauge, the whole word, inbecame a tadbhava as iḍḍali. Over time, the additional ḍ sound was dropped in common usage and that is how we got the current form, iḍli or Idly.”      

— 3 — 

WHICH BRINGS US to the story of the idly’s initial popularity in the Tamil-speaking regions a century ago. How or why did this particular dish which had lain in obscurity for centuries suddenly acquire such acclaim only in these regions? 

The answer: Indian Railways and Palghat Iyers. 

Few things have transformed the socio-economic-cultural landscape of India as the railways. By introducing it in the second half of the 19th century, the colonial British altered the Indian society on an unprecedented scale and at a pace unknown since the dawn of our civilisation. Its impact was felt from Darjeeling to Kanyakumari. In southern India, the Tamil speaking regions (not in the limited sense of the contemporary state of Tamil Nadu) witnessed the most extensive rail networks. 

By the first half of the 20th century, Indians were embarking on hitherto-impossible journeys, thanks to railways. The old notions and experience of local and social stability were being eroded with the laying of each new railway line. Among other things, the train was considered as one of the biggest challengers and destroyers of time-honoured social customs, traditions and mores. The Brahmana community felt this most acutely. One is reminded of D.V.G’s vivid description of the train journeys of his Guru, Sri Hanagal Virupaksha Sastri — how arrangements would be made for this traditional Acharya to facilitate his ablutions, Sandhyavandanam etc., when the train stopped at a station.   

This element of being rooted in tradition also extended to food. Most Brahmanas of that era typically did not eat food prepared by people of other Varnas. This demand was soon filled by the emergence of restaurants at train stations run exclusively by Brahmanas. However, there was a practical problem. The food had to marry speed, convenience, compactness, tradition, and hygiene. 

Palghat Iyers (more generally, the Palghat Brahmanas) seized the reins of this sunrise industry. Before long, every railway station dotting the Tamil region was bursting with restaurants that they had set up. They had found the ultimate dish that would address all the aforementioned problems: idly. 

The discovery of idly was not accidental. It was rather an organic outgrowth of their lived, traditional experience. Until recently, the Malayala-Desha was fabled for its elaborate Yajnas that were conducted at breathtaking intervals. The inḍra (utensil) was an integral part of every Yajna. The enterprising Palghat Iyer community decided to put it to creative and profitable use in these changing circumstances. Thus was born the idly batter, which was filled into the inḍra and after steaming, emerged as idli. 

Idli, which takes its name after the utensil inḍra, in which it is cooked. 

Sri Sediyapu gives us an interesting historical tidbit about the amazing transformative power of the idly in its infancy: “the general Tamil populace, which suddenly discovered the joys of idly, quickly abandoned their traditional breakfast: பலாடு (leftovers from the previous night) and embraced idly with gusto.”   

Soon enough, the idly’s popularity soared throughout south India. It was no longer restricted to train stations or to Palghat Brahmanas. From then on, there was no stopping the triumphant march of the idly as the culinary emperor of the world. 

I rank idly as one of the greatest weapons in the arsenal of our soft power.  

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch