Wait, What? Our Dear Idli Has An Indonesian Connect?

Soft and puffy Idlis have offered comfort to millions of Indians for several thousand years. The snack is often paired with a hearty, lentil-based stew called sambar and a variety of chutneys. Idli is so beloved in India, that you’d find many variants of the same, from Rava Idli to Kodubu idli, but did you know that we may have to thank Indonesia for the modern-day idli?

That’s right, unlike Dosa and Vadai, Idli is a fairly recent innovation. A precursor of the modern idli finds mention in several ancient Indian works, such as the Vaddaradhane, a 920 CE Kannada language work by Shivakotiacharya which refers to a similar snack as "iddalige", prepared only from a black gram batter. According to this recipe, black gram was soaked in buttermilk, ground to a fine paste, and mixed with the clear water of curd and spices. In the 12th century Sanskrit manual ‘Manosollassa’ compiled by King Someshwara of Chalukya Dynasty (modern-day Karnataka), also included an idli recipe, called Iddarika. But most of these idli recipes do not feature, rice or the process of fermentation or the process of steaming. So, when and how did that happen? Food Historian and author KT Achaya speculated a foreign link.  

Steaming, as a method of cooking did not enter modern-day India for a long, long time even though, it had picked up widely in other parts of Asia. Indonesia had many Hindu kings who would visit India to meet family, relatives or in search of brides. The journey used to be long, and via sea. They would naturally travel with their whole entourage of cooks, who would pack up their steamers to make myriad snacks, one of which was ‘Kedli’, which according to Achaya, was much like idli. It was made with fermented rice paste and steamed just like our modern-day idli. And this is how, perhaps, steamed idli made a splash in India somewhere around 800-1200 C.E and became a mainstay.  

Food historian Colleen Taylor Sen the fermentation process, the process of fermentation of batter could be very much a local invention, as almost all parts of India were privy to the process of fermentation, and was eating fermented foods in one way or the other. It is also believed by some historians of Gujarat that it was the Saurashtrian textile merchants who introduced idli to South India during the 10th and 12th centuries. Steamed cakes go back a long way in Gujarat. Apparently, the Gujarati work Varṇaka Samuccaya (1520 CE) also has a mention of idli as idari.