In vessels of economy, the humble idli rises

Last Updated 04 January 2020, 08:31 IST

A wholesome sensual delight — the sight of piping-hot idlis arranged on a plate with green and red coconut chutneys and hot sambhar.

Writer and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor once marvelled at the ancient geniuses who “invented the greatest of all foods”.

Surprising as it might seem, idli is not an indigenous cuisine of the coastal districts or Tamil Nadu.

Late food historian K T Acharya had speculated in his book The Story Of Our Food that the idli recipe of today might have originated in present-day Indonesia, where steamed food was popular.

It is believed that Indonesian chefs, serving under the Chola empire, shared the recipe of idlis with the locals.

“The art of making idli dates back to six generations,” informs the elderly Sumana M Nayak, resident of Hosangadi in Kundapur taluk.

Her assertion gains credence with idli being mentioned as iddalige in the 9th century (920 CE) Kannada literary work Vaddaradhane by Shivakotiacharya. It’s said to be the first literary reference to idlis. Unlike the modern idli, the steamed rice cake was a flattened piece. The batter was poured into molds made from banana leaves, hongare yele, (which had medicinal properties).

These rice cakes, known as sikethaddi or pajemadike addya in Dakshina Kannada district, were made with the help of huge earthen vessels.

One can witness the evolution of the antique brass idli steamer to the present-day idli-maker at the Rani Abbakka Tulu Adhyayana Kendra and Tulu Baduku Vasthu Sangrahalaya in B C Road.

The evolution reveals the socio-economic conditions of commoners who lived some centuries ago, informs historian and museologist Thukarama Poojary. The method of making idlis before, kolai padune, was laborious.

Coconut husks, with the smooth side facing upwards had to be placed at the bottom of vessel. After the husks were covered with water, the palm fronds were arranged to prevent the tilting of batter-filled shells. An equally big vessel was used as a lid.

The first prototype invented by potters differed from the conventional idli- maker with a conduit on one side. Through this conduit, water was poured at regular intervals. According to a legend, a poisonous snake slithered into the vessel through the channel and caused the death of two children.

Potters thus accorded priority to safety while designing the third variant. But in a poorly-illuminated kitchen, the perforated plate fused to the vessel, too, did not guarantee safety.

The fourth variant came in a compact shape with a detachable perforated plate.

“Whether they were rich or poor, each house had one made from mud and brass,” Sumana Nayak recollected.

Thukarama Poojary says the desire for a better life prompted innovation.

The museum today has types of antique idli makers with a capability to cook idlis for 100-plus people.

Sumana, recollecting from the snatches of conversation with her ancestors, said poverty loomed large and there were many mouths to feed.

Idli made from boiled rice came in handy and even farm workers were given them.


Muday or kottige, a variant of idli, (first experimented by the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community) became mandatory during all festivals.

“Due to joint-family system, mudays up to a height of five feet were made in giant idli-makers. With the family disintegrating into nucleus families, the giant vessels have been tossed into attics, she added.

(Published 27 December 2019, 02:38 IST)

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