Features » Metroplus

Updated: March 16, 2012 18:24 IST

My Husband and Other Animals — 21st Century Idli

Comment (11)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Tamarind A naturalised Indian commodity. Photo: Janaki Lenin
Tamarind A naturalised Indian commodity. Photo: Janaki Lenin

During these past winter months, my mother went through a lot of trouble keeping idli batter warm enough through the night. She even wrapped an old woollen sweater around the container. During fermentation, as many as 276 species of bacteria belch carbon dioxide and ooze lactic acid into the batter. Like all women who are proud of the soft, light fluffiness of their idli, my mother made life comfortable for the microbes.

For being so quintessentially south Indian, the process of making idli may not be indigenous at all. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, we south Indians borrowed fermenting and steaming techniques from Indonesia, both critical to idli preparation as we know it today.

Idli is a vehicle for sambhar to go down. And my compadres are renowned to put it away by the gallon. The disappointing news is sambhar is not south Indian either.

Marathi amti is flavoured by kokum, a concentrate made from the fruit of a forest tree in the Western Ghats. When Sambhaji, a Maratha king who ruled Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, in the 18th century, ran out of kokum from his homeland, he substituted tamarind which was brought to India thousands of years ago from Africa. Thus sambhar was born and named for its gourmet progenitor. South Indians uniquely coupled a dumpling whose texture is Indonesian with an Afro-Marathi stew and made it their own.

We wash that delectable breakfast down with cups of coffee. Coffee may be from Ethiopia but south Indians brew a sweet and mean ‘filter kapi'. In my family, the “tradition” of drinking this beverage began with my parent's generation. My grandparents and great-grandparents drank coffee only on special occasions. One great-grandmother drank a non-caffeinated beverage made of roasted coriander seeds and dried ginger called ‘coriander coffee'. She may not have known that coriander was domesticated in the Mediterranean and ginger probably in Southeast Asia.

Cooking techniques and foreign ingredients fertilised Europe too. According to one story, Marco Polo introduced Chinese noodles, which later became spaghetti, to his homeland in the 13th century, while another story suggests that noodles may have followed ancient trade routes preceding the intrepid traveller by centuries. However, many believe pasta is a home-grown invention. Whatever be pasta's past, tomatoes in the sauce are without a doubt American. Like south Indians, Italians borrowed elements from elsewhere to come up with spaghetti smothered in tomato sauce.

Many of the vegetables we use every day – cabbage, potato, pumpkin, carrot, and beans – are not Indian. What did we eat before this cornucopia arrived on our shores? Perhaps some gourds, leafy vegetables, some legumes, a range of yams, parts of banana trees like pith, flowers, and green fruit. None of which Rom will touch, not even with a fork at the end of a barge pole. However, any mention of the wild game ancient south Indians may have eaten is enough to make his carnivorous palate salivate.

Two decades ago, friends and cousins of my generation left for the U.S. with heavy pressure cookers in their suitcases. Now, for grinding idli batter, nephews and nieces pack heavier “wet grinders” which even come in 110 volt versions. Not content serving us idli in their homes, when we visit them in California, they proudly take us to the nearest Udupi restaurant. It's as if we never left home.

The origin of plant species interests me greatly. If African tamarind flavoured many a dish long before Sambhaji concocted sambhar, I wondered what our cuisine was like before being influenced by foreign elements. Instead of finding recipes with native plant parts, I discovered that, unlike us, our forefathers and mothers were global citizens borrowing cooking techniques and experimenting with imported ingredients.

We, their conservative descendents, however, have eaten the idli in the same form for nine centuries at least. Even in the far reaches of the globe, we stick to ancient recipes instead of allowing spores of change to take the dumpling through another gastronomic leap.

I thought that sugar cane was native to india
and that the word sugar is derived from the sanskrit word

from:  ravi verma
Posted on: Mar 18, 2012 at 17:54 IST

Just goes to show that we have always been global as a humanity. Nation
states have begun to make less sense and Facebook has 800 million users
(in the top 5 of communities)is the new country. Time for communities
and common humanity to forge ahead and make this a livable planet where
humans can begin to contribute as world citizens. This article proves
that our ancestors were a bigger part of the global community than we
are with all the technologies and advancements!

from:  manoj nair
Posted on: Mar 18, 2012 at 15:55 IST

The vessel used to steam idli also comes from abroad- China.With idli steamer comes "Kozhakattai"also, theIndian dim sum. So also the wok for frying, called cheenanchetti"" in Kerala". Of course, Cheeni,"sugar, is from China and also our öwn spaghetti/noodle "sevai".If sugar comes, can tea be far behind ? Another Chinese import. And Tamil Nadu's most famous dress material, Kanjeevaram Silk, alsooriginates from China. To add, there are the Chinese fishin nets in Kochi. Historical records mention that China was a big naval power around 400 A.D and one Chinese navigator, Shen Lee, anchored in various South India Ports and spread the chinese cuisine, later adapted to Indian needs and tastes.

from:  E Vishwa Nathan
Posted on: Mar 18, 2012 at 11:07 IST

a couple of points
brinjal is native to india
tomatoes are from mexico and not america

from:  ravi verma
Posted on: Mar 17, 2012 at 18:37 IST

Thoroughly misplaced article. I see disconnect between the headline and
the body work. She offers no scientific proof to her claims. As a
pucca Tamilian and Iyer, I politely refuse to believe that Idli and
sambar that I eat had an alien components.

from:  Raman
Posted on: Mar 17, 2012 at 14:48 IST

The columnist says that Sambhaji invented sambhar.

The fact that tamarind originated in Africa and amti in Maharashtra is interesting. However, since Sambhaji lived in Thanjavur and Thanjavur is in Tamil Nadu, sambhar seems to be South Indian (or Tamilian to be more precise).

from:  Ram Us
Posted on: Mar 17, 2012 at 12:09 IST

Article is hilarious-interesting. I agree with 'Sevengrains' comments. Such articles will be more meaningful if the sources for the claims are also given.

from:  intwomind
Posted on: Mar 17, 2012 at 11:33 IST

I have always prided myself that the Idli-Sambar duo,is a south
Indian concoction. a delectable breakfast 'must' My South-Indian ego
is hurt, badly deflated by the above report. I don't know why the
author should have gone to all the trouble to bring down the south-
Indian pride by a couple of notches.

So, without any proof or evidence to the contrary I still discount the
author's claim.


from:  Sevengrains
Posted on: Mar 16, 2012 at 21:51 IST

The article is interesting, though I do not understand why it is named" My husband and other animals" , there is neither mention of her husband or any other animal for that fact.

from:  Sandhya
Posted on: Mar 16, 2012 at 20:57 IST

very interesting

from:  madhusudanrao
Posted on: Mar 16, 2012 at 20:53 IST

Very interesting article!

If I may be allowed to add a tidbit: The word tamarind comes from Tamar Hind, which, in Arabic, means Indian date. Come to think of it, tamarind does resemble dates.

from:  Sree Srinivasan
Posted on: Mar 16, 2012 at 18:37 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

The new Mercedes C Class sacrifices some of the dynamics of the outgoing model for a longer wheelbase and premium materials »

Susanna Myrtle Lazarus delves into various Christmas food traditions and memories »

Priyadarshini Paitandy on style lessons learnt at the London underground. »



Recent Article in Metroplus

Koshy's on St. Mark's Road. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The ideal places for ketchup

Bengaluru folk prefer cafes, chai points and small eateries to meet up »