The origin of the favourite breakfast item, ‘idli’ (sometimes spelt with a fancy ‘y’) is not known. The name is said to have its origin in the Tamil phrase ‘ittu avi’ (ittu-‘laid’ or ’kept’ and avi- ‘steam cook’ i.e. ‘kept or laid steam cooked’)
It is logical to surmise it is a simplified variant of the ‘Kanchipuram idli’
(or kudalai idli – name based on the flower basket of bamboo thatch and leaves used to steam cook the dough). For centuries, the preparation was confined to temples, especially in North Tamil Nadu, where these idlis provided an all-time, any-time alternative to other offerings that were plain rice based and had an advantage in terms of some keeping qualities, remaining fresh up to another day, a boon for many pilgrims. Also the idlis were wholesome in terms of carbohydrates, proteins and fat content.
The dough is a ground, wet- mix of rice, urad dhal kept fermented through over night storage. It is then spiced with jeera, pepper, salt, chopped dry ginger topped with a generous helping of pure ghee, This mixture, is poured to fill a few bamboo knit flower baskets- small cylinders of 4-5” dia and a foot long, open only at the top- These are kept hung inside a huge earthen pot that is filled with some water to generate the steam needed to cook the dough inside the porous baskets, The pot had a lid with holes that can be plugged or kept open to regulate the steam.
To day’s idli is a simplified version for popular consumption, sumptuous enough and easy on the purse. Mass consumption, basically as a breakfast item happened as a result of commercial activity and urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that encouraged the ‘tiffin’ ( fillers between meals) habit. Coupled with coffee drinking, promoted by many coffee- clubs (primitive restaurants) idlis were actively supported by the growing urban middle class. Politics or poetry, movies or music, career or counseling- every thing got lined up over a plate of steaming idlies and hot coffee. So much so that idli habit got spread as an all time safe refreshment – a day long affair in Nandyal-AP ( ‘Idly Ramiah’ as the joint was fondly known) to a 24 hour mass ritual in the business areas of Madurai.
As the main item is an ever-green formula (some sanctity and respect got attached to this fluffy white entity), the sizes vary these days, from the ‘big brothers’ in Andhra to the ‘mini-idlis’ in some urban cities. The side dishes have also come a long way. Originally the fare was confined to a coconut-gram mix chutney, sambhar ( usually with onions) and some chilly-dhal in gingely oil paste, Now you get some variety of chutneys and powders– mint, coriander, tomato and dhal, you name it you get it!
The utensils varied in shape and make according to consumption. From earth pots to brass cauldrons and iron pans to cozy stainless steel containers. The vital unit, the trays with shallow, hemi-spherical pits with perforations/ holes to allow steam percolation have not changed in shape. Years ago, wet cloth was spread over the pits to facilitate easy removal, but now light greasing of the trays does the trick.
Left over idli dough, further fermented, needed dilution and hence got converted as ‘oothappams’. Further refinements in the dough led to the ‘dosas’ that have become popular, so popular that a new genre of non-vegetarian fare has appeared, but that is another story altogether- a biography with more ‘masala’, one would tend to muse.