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Whose idli is it, anyway?

Idli and sambhar are the most popular dishes from South India, but nobody can still say with certainty how either dish was created

brunch Updated: Dec 01, 2018 23:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Idli,Sambhar,South India
Restaurants selling idlis, dosas, vadas sprang up in the second half of the 20th century(Shutterstock)

They are the best known South Indian dishes in our country and perhaps, the world. But have you ever wondered where the idli and sambhar come from? Tamil Nadu? Karnataka? Andhra? Kerala?

Or none of the above?

In the case of the idli, at least, there is some measure of agreement – even if it is a negative agreement. Nobody can find any traces of what we would recognise as an idli in ancient literature. The first references crop up around 1250 or so.

This led KT Achaya, the eminent food historian, to suggest that the idli may have had a foreign origin. Achaya normally managed to suggest that almost all modern Indian food had its roots in South Indian dishes, references to which could be found in ancient Tamil literature. So, when he abandoned South India’s claims to having invented the idli, the world of food was a little taken aback.

There were some problems with Achaya’s view. The first was that he had no proof, it was just a theory. According to him, the idli is a descendant of a medieval Indonesian dish.

Why Indonesia?

Well, because there were trade links between Indonesia and South India in that era (which is a fact) and so, perhaps, the cooks on Indian ships had learnt how to make idlis in Indonesia and brought the dish back.

Sambhar is one of the most popular South Indian dishes (Shutterstock)

Yeah well, perhaps, they did. But probability is not proof; it is at best, a guess. For this theory to have some substance, Achaya would need a textual reference. He did not have one. Or, at the very least, he needed to point to some Indonesian dish that Tamil cooks learned to make and brought back to India. He had one candidate: a dish called the kedli, which he said Indonesians had created.

This is controversial: attempts to track down Achaya’s historical kedli have not been entirely successful. And while you can see clear evidence of culinary exchanges between India and Indonesia, the idli is not one of them.

This has led to a second theory. There is a long trade tradition between South India and Arabia, dating back to the years before the birth of the Prophet. So the theory is that Arab traders who settled in South India decided to make rice cakes and that these became idlis.

Sambhar, a complex dish, has been reduced to a single pan-South Indian dal in the rest of India

Again, this is interesting, but even though the theory has been quoted by reputed food historians, I haven’t seen any real evidence for this view. And at an intuitive level, Indonesia seems more appealing.

Last week in Chennai, I asked Shri Bala, part of a new generation of food historians, what she thought the truth was. Shri Bala is inclined towards the it-comes-from-Indonesia theory. Her view is that the dish itself is less important than the method. Until the idli caught on, she says, there was no Tamil tradition of fermenting batter. The importance of the idli lies in the fermentation methods it required. These methods were well-known in Indonesia at that time. So, rather than looking for an Indonesian counterpart of the idli, she says, look at the technique. Could it be that cooks on Indian ships picked up the method for fermenting batter in Indonesia? And that when they came back to India, new dishes were created using this technique? The idli was one of these new dishes.

It is a plausible enough theory. But it is still a theory.

Food historian Shri Bala thinks the method of making idlis is more important than the dish

Shri Bala is on stronger ground when it comes to the origin of sambhar. Every South Indian bristles a little when you point to the legend which says that sambhar is actually a Maharashtrian dish gifted to the Tamil people by inventive Maratha rulers.

There are many versions of the legend. And all are, quite frankly, slightly ridiculous. What is beyond dispute, however is that the Marathas did rule Thanjavur.

It is also true that there was a king called Shahuji (the name is spelled in different ways) and that he owed allegiance to Sambhaji, son of the great Shivaji Maharaj. After that, the story goes off the rails.

According to one version, Shahuji decided to give his cook the day off and decided that he would do some cooking himself.(Yeah, sure. Like this happened all the time in medieval Indian palaces.) He decided he would make amti, a popular Marathi dal. But he found that there was no kokum (a souring agent much used in the West of India) available. So he decided to use tamarind (popular in South India) instead.

Legend has it that the sambhar was named in honour of Sambhaji

And lo and behold! He invented a new dish. And he named it sambhar in honour of Sambhaji.

Another slightly more plausible version has it that Sambhaji was visiting Thanjavur and the royal cooks invented this dal in his honour and named it after him.

Most of the sources for this origin story are (you guessed it) Marathi texts. And South Indians say that they know of no such story. The dish is theirs, they say, and the name has nothing to do with Sambhaji.

Shri Bala, for instance, says that the idea of a dal cooked with vegetables turns up frequently in old Tamil recipes. There is a dish called kottu, she says, which is the true ancestor of sambhar and references to it appear in Tamil literature all the time.

But the Tamils have one problem. Sambhar is made with tuvar dal (also called toor or arhar), which is a classic Western Indian dal. Until sambhar became one of the unifying dishes of South Indian cuisine, tuvar was largely unknown in Tamil Nadu. So isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that sambhar is made with a dal associated with Maharashtra?

Amti, a popular Marathi dal made using kokum, is believed to have inspired sambhar with tamarind as the souring agent (Shutterstock)

Shri Bala’s response is that dishes are not invented in one fell swoop (like when the King gives his cook the day off and decides to be adventurous in the kitchen himself!). Most cuisines evolve slowly over time, incorporating new ingredients as they become available. (For instance, the Maharashtrian amti now uses chillies which were not easily available when Sambhaji was around.)

It is entirely possible that when the Marathas ruled Thanjavur, they introduced tuvar dal and that, over time, it replaced moong dal in some recipes. Besides, if the Marathas thought that they had invented such a great dish, why didn’t they take it back to Maharashtra? All over Maharashtra, sambhar is still regarded as a South Indian dish.

I don’t suppose this debate will ever end. But what fascinates me is how sambhar, a complex dish with many regional variations, has been reduced to a single pan-South Indian dal in the rest of India.

Sambhar is made with tuvar dal, which is a classic Western Indian dal (Shutterstock)

The popularity of idli-sambhar is really a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. That is when South Indian restaurants selling dosas, idlis, vadas and sambhar sprang up, first in Bombay and then, in the rest of India.

Most of these restaurants were owned by restaurateurs from Karnataka, often from the Udupi district (hence the term: Udupi restaurants) and, in many cases from a single community, the Bunts.

They have their own sambhar in Karnataka, and Mangalore also has its own variation. It is nothing like the Tamil sambhar and some might argue that its taste is less universally pleasing. It is interesting that when South Indian idli-dosa places sprang up all over India, the restaurateurs chose to serve the Tamilian sambhar, not the one that came from their hometowns.

I asked chef Natarajan, formerly of the Taj, who I always turn to when I want to check about anything to do with South Indian food. Nat (as everyone calls him) travelled around the South looking for home-style recipes when the Taj opened Southern Spice in Chennai in 1997 and reckons that there is no one dish called sambhar. Each state has its own variations and often, even within a state there are significant differences in the recipe. But he reckons that overall, perhaps because of its popularity in Mumbai and the North, the Tamil sambhar has come to be recognised as the definitive version. Unfortunately, he says, not everyone distinguishes between the tiffin sambhar (served at breakfast), which is thinner and has only drumsticks from the meal-time sambhar, which is thicker and has many more vegetables.

The meal-time sambhar is thicker and has many more vegetables than the tiffin sambhar, which has only drumsticks (Sbutterstock)

Shri Bala, who says she rarely orders sambhar at restaurants because she is usually disappointed, says of the sambhar served at South Indian restaurants in Delhi that it is so bad that neither Tamils nor Mangaloreans will enjoy it.

Fair enough. But isn’t it strange that as popular as idli and sambhar are all over India, nobody can still say with certainty how either dish was created?

From HT Brunch, December 2, 2018

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First Published: Dec 01, 2018 21:16 IST