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Will No One Speak of the Idli? A Humble South Indian Laments

On World Idli Day, read the perfect recipe for instant rockstardom at office!

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I was a rockstar at my workplace in Delhi. Depending on the audience, the reasons will vary – a creative mindset, humility, slogging for 18 hours a day, good hand in a crisis... you get the picture.

The true reason though, is a fluffy, jasmine-white ‘tiffin’ item that is known the world over as ‘idli’. Forty idlis in a hot pack and mildly spiced, piping hot sambar –  this is the recipe to rockstardom at the office.

On World Idli Day, read the perfect recipe for instant rockstardom at office!
Idlis are quintessentially South Indian.
(Photo: iStock)

Idlis are quintessentially South Indian. I am a quintessential South Indian. Idlis also have a global presence, while rooted in tradition. As a human being, I felt such a compliment was wasted on a comestible, and so I borrowed it shamelessly.

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I hit rock-bottom when I decided to up the ante and feed my colleagues some nuggets from history about the origins of the idli and references to this delectable gastronomic staple in 3,000-year-old Tamil manuscripts and classical poetry.

There wasn’t a single reference to the idli.

Vadais (3,000-year-old poem), Dosas (2,500-year recipe) and Pongal (4,000-year-old song). All check!

On World Idli Day, read the perfect recipe for instant rockstardom at office!
Let’s do dosa!
(Photo: iStock)

Idlis: No ode, nor song, nor vague recipe – not even a passing mention anywhere.

Idlis are easy to digest. In fact, they are one of the easiest foods to digest on the planet. It’s made of fermented dough, so like many Indian foods, it’s chock full of probiotics. The body breaks down the idlis massaged with a teaspoon of fragrant gingelly oil into carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals and energy before you’re done reading one page of a South Indian breakfast menu. The truth about where the idli came from though, was hard to swallow.

On World Idli Day, read the perfect recipe for instant rockstardom at office!
The truth about where the idli came from though, was hard to swallow.
(Photo: iStock)

Idlis are Indonesian. 800 years ago, Indonesian kings took a great fancy for South Indian brides. Their cooks brought with them steaming vessels (which Xuan Xang sadly notes, were absent in the 7th century) to make ‘keteli’ (idli’s forerunner, according to legend). The Indian cooks ‘borrowed’ the secret technique of steaming, brought together rice, urad dal and fenugreek in a flash of gastronomic brilliance and invented the Idli.

I’d tell you about how we were adept at fermenting rice and pulses for eons – which is key to making awesome idlis – but at this point, I’m just not in the mood.

Thankfully, we live a world that loves stereotypes. I’m going to think positive and ready the next batch.

(The article was originally published on 18 August 2015. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark World Idli Day.)

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