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.
Keywords: My Husband and Other Animals