Mushrooming classy cafes, pizzerias and wontons may be attractive for Gen X, but undoubtedly, the much acclaimed idli, ven pongal, vada, dosa, filter coffee and tea continue to be evergreen breakfast options for the discerning vegetarians. And for lunch, of course varieties of lip-smacking biryanis and smoky chicken 65 are sure to tickle tastebuds of those who enjoy non-vegetarian food.
But are these delicacies our own? Or did it originate elsewhere and was imported? These customised concoctions in their original form may have come from elsewhere but they have been naturalized to an extent that now, in their present form, these delicacies are our own.
“You just cannot say idli is not our delicacy, as there are references in Sanskrit and Kannada literature between ninth and 13th century. A form of idli known as ‘iddalage’ is mentioned in a 920 CE Kannada language work, Vaddaradhane by Shivakotiacharya. Similar recipe called ‘iddarika’ is mentioned in the Sanskrit literature Manasollasa written by King Someshara III in 1130 CE,” says food historian Rakesh Raghunathan.
“But their idlis are made of blackgram and buttermilk. There was no use of rice along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix and steaming the batter for fluffiness. Chinese traveller Xuanzang during his visit to the country had documented that steaming the food was not in practice,” he adds.
According to food historian K T Achaya, idli could have come to India around 800-1200 CE from the present day Indonesia, a part of which was then ruled by Hindu kings belonging to the Shailendra, Isyana and Sanjaya dynasties. Idli is similar to a preparation called the ‘kedli’ there. Indian cooks from the royal household could have returned home with the recipe.
“Today we call it as South East Asia but then it was Hindu kingdom and there was regular movement between the two places. Then there were Kanchipuram idlis of Varadharaja Perumal Temple, a distinctly different recipe, a sure 400-year-old. It was called ‘kudalai’ idli. It was steam cooked in Bamboo basket. Each idli easily weighed around three kilograms,” says Rakesh There are also claims that Arab settlers brought idli to India. According to food historian Lizzie Collingham, the Arab traders were strict in their diet and always insisted on halal food. Based on references available at the Al-Azhar University library in Cairo, Collingham says that the Arab traders started to make flattened rice balls as a safe option.
There is another popular legend that idli is a form derived from ‘Ittu Avi’, according to S Ram Prakash, chef and food researcher. “People living on the hills of Western Ghats had the practice of deep frying a batter of urad dhal in ghee. This probably could be a reference to the present day medhu vada also,” says Ram Prakash.
From ‘thatte’ idlis to mini idlis, Goan sannas to Mangalorean khottige and Muddhe idlis steamed in leaves, idlis have come of age.
Dosa and divinity
Unlike idli, dosa was already in use in the ancient Tamil country around the 1st century AD, as per references in the Sangam literature. Dosa at that time was thick in size. It was also called dosa adai. One could trace the history of dosa from the songs of Baanars, a travelling community during Sangam period, who recorded what they saw. It was only an observation and not a recipe. There are also references that dosas were part of temple food offered as prasadams. Dosa offered in Vaishnavite temples including the Alagar Koil Temple in Madurai is popular even today.
The thinner and crispier version of the dosa was widely made in Karnataka. According to historian P Thankappan Nair, dosa might have originated from Udupi town. A recipe for dosa (as dosaka) can be found in Sanskrit literature Manasollasa.
Legendary British chef and culinary historian Gordon Ramsay called idli and dosa as “international dish” because of dosa’s unique texture and idli’s smoothness. He also recorded that idli and dosa were the safest and tastiest foods conceived and conceptualised by humans.
A ghee treat!
After idli and dosa the next best popular option is pongal, both sweet and salted. There are references to pongal in ancient inscriptions especially in Tiruchendur stone inscriptions. Sweet pongal or ‘Akkaraadisil’ as referred in the inscription is quite popular in Vaishnavaite temples. “Apart from the sweet pongal, references of ‘ven pongal’ (the salted one) is found in the inscriptions as ‘paal amudhu’ and ‘nei amudhu’. The ven pongal could have been derived from these two recipes,” says C Santhanlingam, retired archaeological officer and epigraphist.
Celebrity Chef K Damodaran says: “Akkaraadisil made in Andal Temple in Srivilliputtur is popular. The consistency is much like that of halwa. Vellai appam of Chettinad cuisine is also a form of idli, and the practice of making chutneys was brought from Burma. We exchanged spices for chilli and coriander from Burma through a barter system. Idiyappam (string hopper) originated in Sri Lanka and was brought to our country,” he adds.
“Kummayam is a forgotten recipe. It’s not the ‘Adikummayam’ which is popular in Chettinad cuisine. Lentils, jaggery, and ghee go into the making of traditional kummayam. Millet based food are our traditional food. For instance, ‘kali’ (pudding) made of ‘kambu’ (pearl millet) and ‘kelvaragu’ (finger millet) were widely consumed by people,” he says.
No bar on sambar
And these idli, dosa and pongal cannot be eaten without Sambar. It is the lifeline for these dishes. “The earliest form of sambar ‘mohana kalavai’ is mentioned in Sangam literature. Then it was not of this colour and the consistency was also not watery. The consistency was much like ‘dal tadka’,” says Chef Ram Prakash.
Though there are several interesting stories to sambar, the most popular one is that sambar is named after Sambaji, the son of the great Maratha warrior, Shivaji. He was so hungry one day that he went to the kitchen himself and prepared a dal in the Marathi way. Sambaji had made sambar for the first time!
A spicy treat
For ardent non vegetarian foodies, biryani has been the staple diet. Though there is not much authentic history about biryani, it is widely believed that the dish was brought to the country and popularized by the Mughal kings. “It is basically a Persian dish. The Mughal kings wanted to provide hot food for their soldiers and officials at the helm of the affairs and they developed the ‘dum’ style of cooking, which helped the food to retain the heat. The dish has evolved over the years. Now, biryani is more popular here with people using indigenous rice variety ‘Seeraga Samba’ to prepare the dish,” says Rakesh Raghunathan.
If biryani comes, can chicken 65 be far behind? There are several theories about the origin of chicken 65. One popular theory is that A M Buhari of the Buhari chain of hotels, invented the dish in 1965. Another is that it was the 65th item listed on the Army menu card and hence the name chicken 65. It might be called so because it was made of chickens which were 65 days old. Yet another story is that chicken was marinated with 65 red spicy chillies. The dish has become so popular it found place in the first season of KBC hosted by Amitabh Bachchan where he asked “where does the dish chicken 65 come from?” Whatever may the story be, the dish is listed on top of popular items in most of the non-vegetarian eateries.
From Coffee to Kaapi
Coffee is an inseparable drink in many Brahmin households as they have made it their own. For many people, the day dawns with a cup of steaming filter ‘kaapi’ or coffee.
Coffee has its origin in Abyssenia, now modern day Ethiopia. Based on ancient Ethiopian history, the legend says that Kaldi, a goatherd discovered the coffee beans and at his wife’s behest, took the berries to some Monks in a monastery near Lake Tana.
The goatherd presented the coffee berries to the head Monk as he exclaimed the effect that these berries had. The Monk grabbed the berries and threw them into the fire, deeming them the “Devil’s work”. Within moments, the chamber was filled with the smell of roasting coffee. This brought other Monks out and they raked the coffee beans from the fire and crushed them in order to put out the molten embers. The head Monk ordered hot water be poured over the now powdered coffee and…the rest is history, as they say. The Monks stayed up all night drinking the new concoction, vowing to always drink it in order to stay awake for their nocturnal devotions. News of this event spread, and soon coffee was consumed throughout the country.
Coffee came to India before the East India company, through an Indian Sufi saint named Baba Budan who introduced coffee from Yemen to the hills of Chikmagalur, Karnataka in 1670. Since then coffee plantations were established in the region, extending south to Kodagu.
Tea's origin is a blend of myth and fact of ancient concepts in spirituality and philosophy. According to a Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Nong accidentally discovered tea. While boiling water in the garden, a leaf from an overhanging wild tea tree drifted into his pot. The Emperor enjoyed drinking the infused water so much that he was compelled to research the plant further. Legend has it that the Emperor also discovered tea's medicinal properties during his research.
It is probable that the tea plant originated in regions around southwest China, Tibet, and Northern India. Chinese traders may have travelled throughout these regions often and encountered people chewing tea leaves for medicinal purposes.
British established commercial tea plantations in India when a native variety of Camellia Sinensis plant was discovered by Scotsman Robert Bruce in 1823 in Assam. The story goes that a local merchant, Maniram Dewan, introduced Bruce to the Singpho people who were drinking something very similar to tea. The Singphos plucked the tender leaves of a wild plant and dried them under the sun. These leaves were exposed to the night dew for three days after which they would be placed inside the hollow of a bamboo tube and smoked till flavours developed. Bruce sampled the leaf decoction and found it to be similar to the tea from China.
It was only after his demise in 1830 that his brother Charles pursued the quest and found it to be a variety of tea different from the Chinese plant and named it Assamica.
The East India Company in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly over global tea trade started producing tea within the British colonies, including India. For this, Chinese tea seeds were reportedly smuggled into the colonies, including India and Sri Lanka, and tested for commercial viability. After extended periods of dedicated efforts, the first British-led commercial tea plantation in India was established in 1837 in Chabua in Upper Assam.
People in South India who were used to having different kinds of drinks like ‘sukku malli kaapi’ and ‘thulasi kashayam’ for medicinal purposes, have now, made coffee and tea a part of their daily routine.
- Lord Mountbatten requested C Rajagopalachari to send his Tamil cook to teach his English cook the nuances of making idli and dosa. His wife, Edwina Mountbatten, was very fond of idli and dosa and she herself learnt to make it from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cook, who was from Madurai
- The Darjeeling-born Vivien Leigh who starred in Gone With The Wind had a masala dosa at the oldest South Indian restaurant on Park Street, Calcutta, in 1932 and got hooked to it. She never forgot its lingering taste
- Nehru’s South Indian secretary M O Mathai mentioned in his book Reminiscences of the Nehru Age that Indira Gandhi loved to gorge on idlis.
- March 30 is observed as World Idli Day
Suda suda Coffee, and morning wake up dose
- The Defence Food Research Laboratory has developed 'space idlis' along with a chutney powder and sambar powder for astronauts as part of India's first manned space mission
- Coffee is cultivated in the hill tracts of South Indian States, with the State of Karnataka accounting for 68% followed by Kerala 22% and Tamil Nadu 5% of total production of 3,19,500 metric tonnes, according to Indian Data Aggregator, Indiastat. Indian coffee is said to be the finest as it is grown in the shade rather than direct sunlight unlike anywhere in the world
- There are over 40,000 tea gardens across Assam, over 60,000 tea gardens in The Nilgiris and about 80 tea gardens in Darjeeling. The words ‘Darjeeling’, ‘Darjeeling logo’, ‘Assam logo’ and ‘Nilgiri logo’ are registered under the Geographical Indications of Goods Act of 1999
- 2.25 billion cups of coffee is consumed in the world every day
- 2 billion people drink tea every morning, globally
- News Research Department