The late AK Ramanujan, one of the finest scholars of Indian literature, and a poet, wrote a brilliant, informal essay published in 1989 titled, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”
Among the many gems in this essay is a notion that all Indian thinking is context-sensitive, as opposed to the Western way of thinking that creates thoughts that claim to be context-free. To illustrate this, Ramanujan quotes a parable of the Buddha—
Once a man was drowning in a sudden flood. Just as he was about to drown, he found a raft. He clung to it, and it carried him safely to dry land. And he was so grateful to the raft that he carried it on his back for the rest of his life. Such was the Buddha’s ironic comment on context-free systems.
Our Vedas and our glorious epics all begin with a setting of the context.
Therefore, it is crucial to set the context before tackling a subject as weighty as the status of the idli in south India.
Imagine a food item, beloved of tens of crores of Indians, a staple of childhood, recommended by doctors, a delicious mix of rice and pulses, fermented, steamed, and then served piping hot with an array of chutneys, sambhar, powders, or even some butter or ghee (in certain places). Is there a box that the idli does not check?
Its taste is of the divine, an offering of love served by mother/aunt/grandmother/wife. Those poor sods in America who talk of “Motherhood and Apple Pie” cannot hold an agarbatti to the lofty pedestal the humble idli has in our folklore, indeed in our very soul.
When you are sick and unable to digest anything spicy or oily, the doctors will put you on an idli diet.
When you are stuck in the deep interiors of Tamil Nadu or Karnataka and unable to trust the hygiene in roadside eateries, the steamed-to-sterile-perfection idli rides to the rescue. No one could have ever fallen ill from eating a freshly made Idli.
It is the idli that binds the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm. In this land of vast differences in culture, religion, language, class, the only one thing has universal appeal.
If idli were worshipped as God, Hinduism would be monotheistic.
Who in south India has not taken an overnight train journey, woken in the morning and inhaled a plate of hot idli as we watched the countryside go, er, idly by?
idli is never the question. Breakfast, lunch, tiffin or dinner is the question. Idli is the answer.
So, yes, in south India, idli is a superfood. The context deems it so.
But alas, there is a cloud that surrounds this silver lining. Those sad sacks like this author, the bearers of bad news, those pesky nutritionists to whom nothing is sacred (except your health) have to look at what’s in the Idli and what it does to the human body.
The context for this is the notion that eating a balanced diet is important, that eating processed sugar carbs is bad for you, that fiber is important in one’s diet, and above all, age matters in what food you can eat, and how much of it you can eat.
Idli’s glycemic index is 69, which puts it in same category as grape juice, banana, unpeeled boiled potato, and white sugar. It’s glycemic load of 35 is a bit better, but still firmly in the category of a dessert.
“What do you mean, idli is dessert. I don’t have a sweet tooth”, says the portly uncle as he tucks into his 8th idli.
Somewhere, a dietician, a diabetologist, and a dialysis center owner get together and raise a silent glass to toast this uncle’s profound support for their profession.
“But when I was sick as a child, I was always given idli to speed my recovery”. Yes. You were. Along with Marie biscuits, and glucose mixed with water. Try having those as “health foods”.
“But idli is the common denominator, rich or poor, young or old, healthy or infirm, all can have”. Yes sir, all can have. All can also have diabetes.
“But it is part of our tradition, our ancient wisdom”. Yes indeed, Uma-ji. But your ancient wisdom came to you from your diabetic grandmother. That is called a home truth, not to be confused with ancient wisdom.
“But idli is much healthier than doughnuts, muffins and waffles.” Of course it is. When someone robs you, you don’t let them off by saying, “But he didn’t murder me”. The comparison with those deadly poisons is a false one.
Three idlis have 140 calories, which is the nutritional equivalent of a can of Coke. Of course, Idli has some protein and some dietary fiber, so the comparison is not totally apt.
But idli is far closer to a can of Coke than it is to a bowl of salad.
Therein lies the rub. The most dangerous foods are not horribly unhealthy foods like cola, doughnuts and sweets because we know they are dangerous and so we generally control their intake. The most dangerous foods are innocuous ones like rice, fruit juices and yes, idlis, because you eat them with abandon, thinking that they are healthy. And unless had in moderation, they are not healthy.
So what is a moderate dose? That depends entirely on your age and your physical activity. When you are below the age of 20, you can pretty much eat as you like. Between 20 and 35, let your physical activity and your overall fitness guide you. Beyond the age of 35, no more than 6 idlis a week for normal weight people, and none for the obese.
What about the combination of idli, sambhar, chutneys, ghee, etc?
Definitely. If you have a bowl of vegetable-laden sambhar, and put one idli into it, and perhaps a little ghee, this is the way to go. In fact, it is the only nutritionally acceptable way to eat idli.
For my over-35 age patients, I give them a simple mantra.
Idli is deadly, dosa is diabetes, rice is poison. Am I exaggerating? Of course, a little. But I am dealing with unseating something as powerful as the idli from its perch at the top of the south India’s culinary pantheon…and that is no small task.
Header image credits: Aleksandr Zykov/flickr.com
Ravi Mantha, a lover of Idlis and food, is a nutritional and wellness expert and the author of “The Baby Elephant Diet: A Modern Indian Guide to Eating Right”. His first book on health is titled “All About Bacteria”. Ravi is an organic farmer, healthguru and specializes in treating chronic pain and illnesses. He tweets at @rmantha2 and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ravi.mantha.author
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