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Idli. Image source: scdn.archanaskitchen.com
  • In Tamil Maccapuranam, the ‘ itali’ made only a late appearance, in 17th century AD.
  • History credits that Arab traders often used to visit the southern coast for trade, even before the advent of Islam in the country
  • The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but it is again representative of being made from urad dhal flour only

In a shattering revelation to everyone who has believed Idli to be an authentic South Indian cuisine, the truth could be that the soft, fluffy rounds of rice might have migrated to India from Indonesia or have been brought along by Arab settlers.

According to K.T. Acharya’s (a prominent food historian) theory, idli’s are a relatively new introduction to Indian cuisine, quoted The Hindu.


He points out that the word idli might have been derived from ‘iddalige’, as mentioned in a 920 AD Kannada work, but the suggestions are that this was made from an urad dhal batter only, which was neither steamed for fluffiness, nor fermented.

The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but it is again representative of being made from urad dhal flour only. A century later, in Karnataka, idli is described as being ‘light, like coins of high value.’

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In Tamil Maccapuranam, the ‘ itali’ made only a late appearance, in 17th century AD.

All these references point to these three facts:

  • Rice wasn’t used with urad dhal
  • There was no fermentation of the mixture initially
  • The batter wasn’t steamed for fluffiness

According to The Hindu, Acharya claims that it was only after 1250 AD that idli was made the way it is prepared today. He further points out that this absence of the present way of preparing idli could then possibly mean that idli is a migrated food item and most probably from Indonesia.


Variety of idlis on display at Planet Fun in Vijayawada.Image source: www.thehindu.com

The food is known to be an Indonesian dish because various Hindu kings from the country would often travel to India in search of a suitable bride. They often brought their cooks along, who in turn brought with them a technique that changed the nature of this breakfast delight forever.

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Indonesia also has a long tradition of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (the recipe we get ketchup from) or something called kedli, which Acharya explains, is like an idli.

However, other references available at the Al-Azhar University Library in Cairo suggest that Arab traders in the southern belt brought in the idli after they married and settled down in those parts.

History credits that Arab traders often used to visit the southern coast for trade, even before the advent of Islam in the country. The first mosque outside the Arab peninsula was built by Arab settlers who initially came as traders.

The Arab settlers were very particular about their diets. A majority of them migrated here when Mohammed was still alive when they were relatively new to Islam from Paganism.

They insisted on halaal food, and Indian food was quite strange to their taste. To avoid all such dilemma about what is halaal or haraam in food, they started making rice balls. Post making the rice balls, they would slightly flatten them and compliment it with bland coconut paste.

Later, it was improved upon, and from the 8th century onwards, the idli in its contemporary avatar came into being.

-prepared by Bulbul Sharma, a staff-writer at NewsGram. Twitter handle: iBulbul_

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