From Idlis To Pickles: India’s Traditional Fermented Foods
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Fermentation is a practice that is employed for food preservation, flavouring food, and adding to the nutritive value of the food. The consumption of fermented foods in India is not only rooted in the tendencies of daily cooking but also in the traditions and local references of the country. From the favourite breakfast staple in the southern part of India—idlis—to mouth-watering pickles in dals consumed by inhabitants of the northern region, this article talks about India’s affection for fermented foods.

Fermentation is a metabolic process in which microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and moulds convert organic compounds, particularly carbohydrates, into alcohol or acids. This process not only preserves the food but also enhances its flavour, texture, and nutritional profile. Fermentation is responsible for the tangy taste of yoghurt, the fluffiness of bread, and the complex flavours of many traditional Indian dishes.

Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are renowned for their numerous health benefits, including:

  • Probiotics: They are rich in beneficial bacteria that aid in digestion and improve gut health.
  • Enhanced Nutrient Absorption: Fermentation breaks down anti-nutrients, making it easier for the body to absorb essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Boosted Immunity: Regular consumption of fermented foods can strengthen the immune system.
  • Improved Digestive Health: The enzymes produced during fermentation can help break down food more effectively.

Ancient Roots

Fermentation has been an integral part of Indian culinary practices for thousands of years. Historical records and ancient texts mention various fermented foods, indicating their long-standing importance in Indian diets. The practice of fermenting foods likely originated as a means to preserve seasonal produce, especially in times before refrigeration.

Regional Fermented Delicacies of India

India’s vast geography and diverse cultures have given rise to a plethora of fermented foods, each with its own unique preparation methods and cultural significance. Fermented foods are often associated with festivals, rituals, and daily meals, reflecting the deep cultural connections to these culinary traditions. 


Idlis are soft, steamed cakes made from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (black gram). They are a breakfast staple in South India and are often served with chutney and sambar. The fermentation process not only makes idlis fluffy and delicious but also enhances their nutritional value.


Dosas are crispy, thin crepes made from a similar fermented batter of rice and urad dal. They come in various forms, from the plain dosa to the masala dosa filled with spiced potatoes. Dosas are enjoyed with chutneys and sambar, and their tangy taste is a result of the fermentation process.


Appams are soft, lacy pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice and coconut milk. They are a popular dish in Kerala and are typically served with stew or curry. The fermentation process gives appams their characteristic light and fluffy texture.

Pickles (Achaar)

Pickles, or achar, are an essential part of North Indian cuisine. They are made by fermenting vegetables and fruits with spices, salt, and oil. The fermentation process imparts a tangy, spicy flavour that complements Indian meals. Common ingredients include mango, lemon, and mixed vegetables.


Kanji is a traditional North Indian fermented drink made from black carrots or beetroot. It is especially popular during the winter months and is known for its tangy, refreshing taste. The fermentation process involves soaking the vegetables in water with mustard seeds and allowing them to ferment for several days.

Panta Bhat

Panta bhat is a traditional fermented rice dish popular in West Bengal, Assam, and Odisha. Cooked rice is soaked overnight in water, allowing it to ferment. It is typically eaten with salt, onions, and green chillies, especially during the hot summer months.


Gundruk is a fermented, leafy green vegetable dish popular in the northeastern states of India. It is made by fermenting leafy greens such as mustard, radish, or cauliflower leaves, which are then dried and used in various dishes.


Dhokla is a savoury steamed cake made from a fermented batter of rice and chickpeas (besan). It is a popular snack in Gujarat and is known for its light, spongy texture and tangy taste. Dhokla is often garnished with mustard seeds, green chillies, and coriander.

Fermented Fish

In the coastal regions of Maharashtra and Goa, fermented fish dishes are a culinary tradition. Fish is salted and fermented to create dishes like bombil (Bombay duck) and Karli, which are then used in curries and fried preparations.

Incorporating Fermented Foods Into Daily Diets

Incorporating fermented foods into daily diets can be simple and rewarding. Here are a few tips:

  • Start Small: Introduce fermented foods gradually to allow your digestive system to adjust.
  • Experiment with Recipes: Try making your pickles, idlis, or fermented drinks at home.
  • Combine with Meals: Add a spoonful of achar to your meals or enjoy a glass of kanji with lunch.

India’s love affair with fermented foods is a testament to the country’s rich culinary heritage and cultural diversity. So, whether you are savouring a plate of idlis, enjoying a tangy pickle, or sipping on kanji, remember that you are partaking in a rich tradition that spans centuries and continues to evolve.