Idli and Sambhar are one of the most renowned dishes in India and perhaps, in the world. However, do you ever wonder about where this sumptuous dish has come from? Is it Tamil Nadu? Or Kerala? Or Karnataka? Or may be from somewhere else? In ancient literature, Idli finds no traces. The first references to Idli came to light around 1250 or so, which made the notable food historian, KT Achaya, suggest that Idli may have had its birth in some foreign place. Achaya normally considered that all modern Indian cuisine found its roots in South Indian dishes, and which finds references in ancient Tamil literature. So, Achaya’s dismissal of the claim that Idli was invented in South India created a stir in the food world.
Although Achaya’s point that Idli had a foreign origin was backed by the point that Idli has no mention in Tamil ancient chronicles. However, Achaya’s view also had some drawbacks:
Firstly, Achaya made only a theory, for which he had no proof. According to Achaya, Idli is a progeny of an Indonesian dish of the medieval era. You might ponder why Indonesia?
Well, it is because of the fact that trade links that existed between South India and Indonesia in that period. Therefore, perhaps, the cooks on Indian ships had learned to make Idlis and they brought the dish to India. But, this is only a probability which can only be considered a guess.
In order to give this theory some authenticity, Achaya would require a written reference and he did not have any. Else, he could have named any Indonesian cuisine that the Tamil cooks learned and brought to India. For this he proposed kedli, a dish which according to Achaya was created by Indoensians.
However, it created a stir as Achaya’s strive to track down the origin of kedli was not completely successful. And despite of the fact there were several culinary barters between Indonesia and India, Idli was not necessarily one of them.
A dig into the history…
It is to be noted that there is a long tradition of trade between Arabia and South India, dating back to the times before the birth of Prophet. This gave birth to another theory – the Arab traders who inhabited South India decided to make cakes out of rice and that these later became Idlis. Although some notable food historians quote this theory, there may not be any real evidence to testify it.
When Shri Bala, a new generation historian was asked what she feels about how Idli came about, Shri expresses her inclination towards the theory – Idli hails from Indonesia. Shir Bala puts the method of cooking the dish before the dish itself.
She further says that until the Idli came into prominence, there was no tradition of fermenting batter in the Tamil cuisine. And the significance of making the Idli lies in fermentation. Rather, this method was popular in Indonesia during that time.
So, instead of searching for an Idli counterpart Shri iterates, to look at the cooking technique. It could be that cooks aboard Indian ships imbibed the method of fermenting the batter in Indonesia. And upon coming back to India, they used the technique to create new dishes – and Idli could be one of them. Although this makes a reasonable theory – it is still just a theory!
Is it the Marathas’ grant?
In the case of Sambhar, Shir bala holds a stronger ground. Usually, when anyone points to the legend that goes as – Sambhar is a Maharashtrian dish and was gifted to Tamil people by the inventive Maratha rulers, South Indian exasperate a bit. And there are many versions of this legend. It is also true that there existed a King called Shahuji and he owed allegiance to son of the great Shivaji – Sambhaji. Post that, the story loses the track.
As per one of the stories which revolve around this legend – one day, Shahuji gave his cook a day off and decided to try some cooking himself. So, he chose amti, a famous Marathi dal to cook. But, in the process he found out that kokum (a souring agent much used in western parts of India) was not available. Therefore, Shahuji used tamarind instead. That’s how he invented a new dish – Sambhar – to honour Sambhaji.
Another version which sounds more plausible narrates as – that when Sambhaji was visiting Thanjavur, the royal cooks devised this dal to honour him and also named it after him. While South Indians deny knowing any such story, most of the sources of this legend come from Marathi texts. They assert that Sambhar is theirs and has no relations with Sambhaji.
Shri also says that – the method of dal cooked with vegetables springs up frequently in old Tamil recipes. And Shir regards a dish named Kottu as the real ancestor of Sambhar, the references to which appear in Tamil literature.
Shir bala also says that no dish is invented in one pitch. All great cuisines evolve gradually with time, absorbing new ingredients as they come. For instance, amti, a Maharashtrian dish now uses chillies which were not available at the time of Sambhaji.
A never ending debate…
It is quite interesting to ponder that if Sambhar was a creation of the Marathas then why didn’t they take it back to their place, Maharashtra! In fact, Sambhar is called as a South Indian dish in all over Maharashtra.
This debate will never end however; the fascinating thing about Sambhar is that – despite of being such a complex dish and having regional variations, is reduced to a pan-South Indian dish worldwide.
The rise of idli-sambhar is actually a phenomenon of the 20th century. This was the time when South Indian restaurants offering idli, sambhar and dosas boomed, initially in Bombay and then in other parts of India.