Pooja Pillai, Indian Express, talks about the humble idli, one of India’s most consumed breakfast dish. November 2020.
In the long poetic sequence, ‘Breakfast at Kala Ghoda’, which forms the centrepiece of his Kala Ghoda Poems (2004), Arun Kolatkar made special mention of the ordinary idli. In the poet’s imagination, the idlis collected in the “jumbo aluminium box” of Our Lady of Idlis are transformed from something unremarkable to a “sacrament”, towards which the hungry and homeless people within a mile of this spot in south Mumbai gravitate. What is it that makes this humble food, available for as little as Rs 1 in some places, a source of such inspiration?
The people in the Kolatkar poem might be a figment of the poet’s imagination, but there are enough real-life examples of people for whom the idli is more than just-food. When PC Musthafa, CEO and co-founder of ID Fresh Food, that sells packaged batter, was growing up in Wayanad, Kerala, eating three full meals a day was a “luxury”. “But whenever my grandfather or father could afford it, they would buy some idlis. They were wholesome and filled our stomachs. Because of those memories, to this day, idlis are my favourite food,” he says.
Last month, when a tweet by British historian Edward Anderson, calling the idli “boring”, went viral, idli supporters came forward in droves, led by Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor. The good-humoured controversy made it clear that if a comprehensive survey was to be conducted about India’s most popular breakfast food, idli, along with dosa, would find a place near the top. The idli is available in almost every part of the country and features on menus in five-star hotels, tea stalls, canteens and udupi restaurants. No one disputes its south Indian provenance, but everyone agrees that its appeal goes beyond geographical boundaries. How did this happen?
The story of idli’s popularity begins in Udupi, a temple town in coastal Karnataka. In the late 19th century, large-scale migrations from the region began, with the lower-caste Holeya labourers leaving to work in the coffee plantations of Kodagu and Malenadu, writes economist and professor Chinmay Tumbe in India Moving: A History of Migration (2018, Penguin Random House).
By the early 20th century, a wider range of castes, that included Brahmins trained in the kitchens of their native town’s famous Sri Krishna Temple, joined the exodus, to work as cooks or run their own eating establishments in Bengaluru, Chennai and Mysuru. After a great flood — the “maari bolla” of 1923 — devastated the Dakshina Kannada region, migration out of Udupi and the surrounding areas increased. Tumbhe writes, “Mass migration of male workers and professionals to large cities led to the rising demand for low-cost public eating spaces. Several prominent Udupi food outlets such as Dasaprakash in Mysore and Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan and Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR) in Bangalore were set up in the 1920s to cater to this demand.” Besides cheap lunches and dinners, these outlets also offered south Indian “tiffin” (breakfast or snack) specialities like dosas and idlis.