Origin of Idli and Sambhar?

Idli, a steamed rice and lentils cake is a well known dish from South India and quite famed in India as well as overseas. But it is interesting to know from where the idli and sambhar or the tangy gravy which accompaniments the idli comes from? Is it from the South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh or is it from Tamil Nadu or from Kerala or from Karnataka? Or may be from somewhere else?

For the idli it can be argued that there is no mention in any of the ancient texts and it can be safely concluded that its references surfaced around the 11th century.

The erudite food historian, K.T. Achaya opines that idli might have a foreign ancestry. Though Achaya most of the time manages to suggest that most modern Indian foods trace their roots in South Indian dishes backed up by references from various ancient Tamil literature. In the world of food Achaya’s claim came as a big shock! Later claiming that idli is a later descendant of an Indonesian dish

The reason for the claim being owing to the fact that during medieval period there were trade links between Indonesia and South India and maybe the Indian cooks learnt making idli and brought it to India.

For this theory to have any weightage Achaya did not have, either a very firm textual reference nor did he name any dish from Indonesia bearing resemblance to idli which the Indian cooks learnt and brought to India. Just a dish he named called kedli, which in his opinion the Indonesians created.   There is a bit of controversy over Achaya’s claim that the kedli is a predecessor of idli and is not very well formed.

Yet another theory suggests, South India and Arabia having long trade relations much before the advent of Prophet, Arab traders settled in South India and made some rice cakes which later was recognized as idlis.

Many might endorse that the idli might have come from Indonesia but one more consideration is in the method of preparing the batter. There is no Tamil tradition of fermenting the batter and maybe it was borrowed from Indonesia as this method was quite prevalent in Indonesian food. So it’s not finding an Indonesian dish resembling the idli but the method and technique, and may be the Indian cooks learnt the concept of fermenting the batter on the Indonesian ships.

The sambhar which every south Indian boast, is often argued being a Maharashtrian dish and a gift by the very innovative Maratha rulers to the Tamils. One fact being that the Marathas ruled Thanjavur.

There are several opinions to this legend – a king called Shahuji who paid his obedience to Sambhaji the son of the great Maratha warrior Shivaji Maharaj, once gave a day off to his cook and later entered the kitchen to make a famous Maharashtrian dish with lentils called ‘Amti’, but soon realised that the souring agent called ‘Kokum’ a tropical fruit used mostly in Western India had finished so he got his hands on tamarind and thus a new version of the lentils was made and in honour of Shambhaji it was called Sambhar.

Another version believes that once Shambhaji visited Thanjavur and the royal cooks made a lentil preparation and in his honour called it Shambhar.

Though there are many arguments but it appears in Tamil literature of a dish called Kottu which is said to be the primitive version of sambhar and that the idea of cooking lentils with vegetables has been prevalent in old Tamil recipes.

Interestingly, the back bone of the Sambhar is a lentil called ‘Tuvar Dal’ (also called ‘Toor’) and ‘Arhar’ which are popular dal in Western India. Also, in Tamil Nadu the Tuvar Dal mostly unknown, so it appears quite a bizarre that the popular Tamilian dish is made with a Maharashtrian Dal.

Also to bear in mind that a dish is not invented in one go, it takes a while for a proper recipe to be formulated and a final dish to be prepared.

It is quite possible that the Marathas that ruled Thanjavur introduced Tuvar dal and over a period of time, moong dal was replaced in some recipes. And if the Sambhar was a great Maharashtrian dish, then why it was not taken back to Maharashtra?

The popularity of idli-sambhar sprang up in early 20th Century and it was in Bombay that South Indian restaurants started selling dosas, idlis, vadas and sambhar with most of the restaurateurs from Karnataka and especially from the Udupi district hence the name ‘Udupi Restaurant’.

Mangalore and Karnataka have their own versions of sambhar, very different from the Tamil variation, which in people’s opinion is more balanced. For the very same reason, when South Indian eating joints erupted, their business thrived primarily on Idli, dosa and sambhar and they choose to have the Tamil oriented sambhar as opposed to other variants of sambhar.

In the opinion of many, and also for chef Natarajan of Taj hotels who travelled across South India, for home recipes for sambhar when Taj opened Southern Spice in Chennai, there are significant variations of sambhar from each state but agrees to the fact that due to popularity of the Tamil version of Sambhar in Mumbai and in North India it has become more authoritative and has qualified to be the ultimate version of sambhar. Also many do not know the difference between the tiffin-sambhar which is a breakfast version, made with just addition of drumsticks and is thin in consistency as opposed to the sambhar served for lunch or dinner which is more thicker due to additions of other vegetables.

The irony is that the idli and sambhar are so popular all over India, not only in the South Indian states but also in Northern and Western India, still nobody can decipher its origin and how these dishes were created.