Some dishes leave an indelible impression on us and influence our eating habits. They introduce us to flavours from distant lands and blend in to suit our home-grown taste buds.
While the jury is still out on whether the chicken or the egg came first, many of us believe that the food we eat everyday — not the pastas and sandwiches and noodles, but the ‘Indian’, closer-to-home dishes — has been traditionally prepared the same way as we have them now.
Sometimes all we need to do is to look beyond the comforts of our home to understand the journey dishes have taken before they got to our plates.
When we talk of South Indian breakfasts, it becomes imperative to start with the humble idli.
Idlis are one of the healthiest and most preferred among various South Indian breakfast items, throughout the world. Turn back the clocks to the 17th Century and you find it was mentioned in Classic Tamil literature as “ittally”, and you go back a little further and find more stories about the dish, but which need validation. The stories from yonder are never-ending, but the ones that had popularity linger on till date. It is believed that idli, as we know it today, took shape from the journeys made by the kings of Indonesia to the south of India to find suitable brides.
Following the records of 7th Century Chinese scholar-traveller Xuan Zang’s travels to India, Indians did not understand steaming vessels until the Indonesians brought the kedli (fermented rice cake) to India. Contrary to popular opinion, one cannot negate the existence of other versions of the idly that are not steamed inside steaming vessels found in Karnataka and Kerala, like the ramassery idly which is a version that’s steamed over a cloth fastened atop a pot of boiling water.
Nevertheless, the kedli was modified by adding more fermented rice to speed up fermentation, and thereby resulted in producing soft and fluffy idlis which were rich in carbs, proteins and good bacteria to make it the perfect breakfast slice of rice cake.
Another one from the bamboo steamers of South East Asia, Putu Piring which is unlike the savoury Puttu we’re used to in Kerala, is said to have journeyed across the seas to become one of the most sought out breakfast rice cakes in South India. Puttu is prepared by layering ground rice flour with coconut scrapings in the midst and is a staple usually paired with curries.
The versions that exist in South East Asia are both savoury and sweet of which the sweet version that uses Gula Melaka (Palm Sugar from Malacca, Malaysia) and pandan leaves for that rich green colour is distinctive from the rest owing to its mass appeal. Puttu and kadala (chickpeas) is Kerala’s answer to toast and butter, and it continues to grace every breakfast table with its roots in Kerala.
Puttu has evolved from bamboo steamers and has developed over time to accommodate regionally specific fillings and goes by several different names in different parts of the world.
To Kerala with love from Ceylon. It was love at first sight when porotta met beef fry in God’s Own Country.
However, let’s not forget to thank our Tamil brethren for this masterpiece made with all-purpose flour which arrived from Sri Lanka through migrant workers who came to Tamil Nadu in catamarans. It was first introduced as Veeshu Porotta/Ceylon Porotta in coastal Tamil Nadu, and much later embarked upon this long and eventful journey that accentuated the transition from a humble flat bread in Jaffna to graduating in Kerala and becoming an icon of resistance that goes by the name Malabar Porotta.
Not until the late ’70s or early ’80s did porotta spread throughout the length and breadth of the state. The advent of thattukadas (street hawkers) in the ’90s in Kerala made porotta attain cult status among the masses, and that continues till date.
Manihot Esculenta or cassava first sailed to India from Brazil with the Second Portuguese Armada under Pedro Alvares Cabral. Although the humble kappa (cassava or tapioca) reached India’s shores in the 16th Century, not until the late 19th Century did it gain prominence to become one of Kerala’s most cherished carbs.
Kerala’s food culture is carb-rich and a devastating famine had forced the king of Travancore to make good for the loss of paddy by importing cassava from Brazil to encourage mass cultivation throughout the kingdom to be an apt substitute for rice.
According to folklore, Sree Visakham Thirunal had set up a space next to the palace at Kowdiar, Trivandrum, for cultivating kappa and interestingly he had put a warning sign prohibiting anyone from trespassing and uprooting the plant. The king’s subjects anyway decided to have fun and uproot the plants only to find this new tuber that could resolve all the drought-induced woes.
The place where Visakham Thirunal once planted kappa (‘Maracheenivila’) is now one of the most developed urban residential area in Kerala’s capital city known as Jawahar Nagar. Maracheeni is the local term in Travancore for cassava. It is believed that the mass cultivation of cassava spread to other parts of Kerala after it first began in erstwhile Travancore.
What a fascinating journey that has been from nothingness to being a toddy shop classic to be paired with fiery red curries.