The humble and ubiquitous idli sambar is as Indian as a dish can get, but its origins may lie a few thousand kilometres away from the homeland.
According to food historian KT Achaya, idli may have its origins in Indonesia.
In his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, he quotes Chinese traveller Xuan Zang stating that India did not have a steaming vessel in the 7th century.
Historians also believe there is a strong resemblance between idli and present-day Indonesia’s kedli, a fluffy steamed cake; and bura, a rectangular rice cake cooked in coconut milk.
Closer home, it is said that idli is a version of the idada, a dish introduced in Tamil Nadu by silk weavers who settled there in the 10th century AD.
In fact, even the origin of the name of this dish is debated.
Some say the word idli is derived from ‘iddalige’ mentioned in the Kannada texts, while others say it is from ‘iddarika’ mentioned in the 12th-century Sanskrit text Manasollasa.
Whatever the story of its roots, today, there are multiple versions to choose from. They include thatte idlis, button idlis, sannas, Kanchipuram idlis, the khotigge and mudde idlis, rava idlis and ragi idlis.
As for the delicious medley of lentils and vegetables called sambar, the story traces to Maratha ruler Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji.
Sambhaji was extremely fond of amti, a thin, spicy dal made with a handful of sour kokum.
However, one day when the kokum did not reach the king’s kitchen, Sambhaji used tamarind pulp instead.
Everyone loved the dish that soon came to be known as sambar.
While there are many versions, the most unusual is the milk sambar that evolved in the 1930s, wherein lamb stock used in sambar was substituted with milk.