Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Traditional South Indian Breakfast

(Modified from a posting of mine on

The question was - when could one first have had what is considered to be the traditional South Indian breakfast - idlis, chutney with chillis and coffee?

Using "A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food" by K. T. Achaya (published by Oxford University Press) one can answer this question.

The chilli or green pepper is a New World food, and took a while to reach India.

Achaya on chilli says - there is no mention whatsoever of the chilli in Indian literature before the sixteenth century AD. In AD 1563 the meticulous book of Garcia da Orta, the doctor-botanist does not record it, and in AD 1590, not a single recipe of the fifty or more given in the Ain-i-Akbari uses anything other than pepper to achieve pungency.......

[However, even at that time, the chilli was making inroads, for Achaya notes:] "The great south Indian composer Purandaradasa (AD 1480-1564) sang of the chili - "I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used. Savior of the poor, enhancer of good food, even to think of (the deity) Panduranga Vittala is difficult"".

The origins of the idli are uncertain:

Achaya says that the Indonesians have a variety of fermented foods (including soyabeans, groundnuts, fish), and have a product similar to the idli, called kedli. The cooks who accompanied the Hindu kings on their visits to India may have carried this recipe to India. Xuan Zang (old spelling Hsuan Tsang) apparently was emphatic that seventh century AD India did not have a steaming vessel. But Achaya notes that steaming can be achieved using a cloth cover over a boiling pot, so the antiquity of this cooking method in India is difficult to establish. In any case, the earliest literary reference he finds is to iddalige in the Vaddaradhane of Sivakotyacharya, a Kannada work from AD 920.

Coffee, as per Achaya, originated in Ethiopia, and the first coffee plantations were in Yemen. The first mention in writing in the Indian context is by Edward Terry, 1618 AD, using an anglicization of an Arabic word: 'Many of the people who are strict about their religion use no wine at all. They use a liquor more healthful than pleasant which they call cohha: a black seed boiled in water, which little alters the taste of the water. Notwithstanding, it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits and cleanse the blood. " "Sixty years later, Jean de Thevenot remarked that in Sindh the brahmins drank nothing but 'water wherein they put coffee and tea.'

So, I'd guess, around 1650, you could have easily had the traditional breakfast. Aurangzeb was on the Mughal throne; the Plymouth Colony in the US was 30 years old. Isaac Newton was 8 years old. The news of King Charles I beheading may have reached you. China had an estimated 83 million population. About 12 years prior, the Japanese shogun had driven out the Portuguese. Such would be the morning newspaper, if you had had one to peruse along with breakfast. (If you wanted a newspaper, you'd have to wait till 1780, when the first Indian newspaper, an English weekly known as the Bengal Gazette (Hicky's Gazette), was published from Calcutta. )


Rajan P. Parrikar said...

Wasn't the chilli first brought into India by the Portuguese (and the potato as well)? In Goa, there is a variety of chilli that is known as "Portuguese chilli."

Arun said...

Regarding potatoes, Achaya thinks they had not reached India by 1675; there is an 1860 report that states that the Dutch introduced the potato. Apparently it was initially cultivated only in elevated terrain, and took a while to have varieties adapted to the plains.

The Portuguese probably brought along the chilli, and via Goa. The sapota (cheeku) and the cashew also were introduced the same way.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...

A couple of minutes on Google brought up this link that says the potato was introduced in India by the Portuguese (I haven't typed in Dutch and Potato to see what Google gives).

Amitabha said...

Would Ain-i-Akbari have a lot of `Indian' recipes? Or mostly Mughal and Afghan recipes? Isn't it possible that there were things available in India, used by Indians, which didn't make it to the Imperial kitchen?

Arun said...

Yes, the imperial kitchen probably had a lot that was not available to the ordinary folks. Achaya doesn't classify the recipes in Ain-i-Akbari as Indian vs. Afghan he instead says - Three classes of cooked dishes are described in the Ain-i-Akbari. The first was called safiyana, meant for the emperor's days of abstinence from meat...The second class comprised those in which meat and rice were cooked together. ...The third class consisted of dishes in which meat was cooked with ghee, spices, curd, eggs, etc.

We are told the bread was naan or tandoori or phulka. Also that Akbar used to begin his meals with curd-rice, and that he did not really care for meat.

Apurva Sharma said...

Useful information you provided.
Healthy eating Helps improve attention and concentration.