Story of the Tiffin: Vegetarian Breakfast from Tamil Nadu

A long time ago there was an article in Outlook magazine on the variety of dishes from across India, and there was a vote on the most popular dish. Guess what? Dosa was voted the most popular dish. There have been many such articles paying ode to the quintessential dosa, and if it was not for the Khichidi, as announced by the government of India, Masala Dosa could have easily been the National Dish of India. Even today, it is unofficially the national favourite, the aloo filling uniting us all more than anything else. Interestingly Dosa or Dosai as it is known in Tamil Nadu, goes back to several centuries (urad dal and rice combination has been there for long, and fermentation of the batter is an age-old technique to preserve the batter) – while topping it up with aloo curry is a fairly newer addition from Udipi. Today south Indian tiffins, especially Idli, Dosa and Vada from Tamil Nadu are popular across India and beyond.

Tamil NaduTiffin as a concept and eating Dosa, Idli or Vada as breakfast in the morning is a post 18 century habit in Tamil Nadu. Prior to that people never followed a concept called breakfast – they would directly eat lunch and then dinner. Krish Ashok, columnist, food historian and author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, shares, “The only people that ate in the morning were those, who would work in the fields and they usually ate carbohydrate-rich food. And it would be a heavy meal, as they needed calories to work in the fields.”

The dishes we eat as tiffin today were actually part of the bigger meal or made for special occasions. Tiffin is a modern introduction thanks to the British. Generations of people, who used to work for East India Company, mostly vegetarians, started eating tiffin in the morning before going to work.

“During the 18th and 19th century people working with English adapted their ways, mostly the Brahmins began to have breakfast and evening snacks. They began to have Dosa, Vada during the mornings as well. During the tea time it was pakodas and adai,” Ashok explains.

And that is why breakfast is predominantly considered vegetarian, even though there are people that eat non-vegetarian side dishes with Idli and dosa. The Udipi restaurants too played their part in introducing vegetarian breakfasts, which included restaurant friendly combinations like Idli Sambar and Masala Dosa, explains Ashok, who has written extensively on the subject. “For a long time in India, due to caste disparities there was no concept of restaurants. It was unthinkable for Indians to sit together and eat food prepared by someone else.”

Evidently the concept of restaurants or eating out too is fairly newer concept. It was also an 18th century phenomenon when Udipi restaurants opened to cater to morning office goers. Sharing an interesting tidbit, Ashok says Sambar is not originally Tamil dish.  “It is probably a Marathi dish that has been changed for south taste. Instead of Kokum we use tamarind,” he says.

Tamil Nadu
Idli, Vada, Sambar

Amongst Idli, dosa and vada – Idli is the newest of the lot. “There was no concept of steaming dishes before the 10th century. It is estimated that this concept came from South East Asia, after the Cholas conquered the territory. In fact, Indonesia has a dish called Kedhli, which is very close to the Idli,” he adds.

He further shares, “After cholas conquered parts of South East Asia the recipe has been brought down to Tamil Nadu. However, it was eaten like the Dosa with a variety of side dishes and in many parts and communities even with meat and fish in addition to the coconut chutney. Sambar as a side dish was introduced when the Udipi restaurants started.”

“Dosas and vada are very old recipes; frying ground rice and urad dal combination easily goes back to 2000 years and more. There are references to fried items consumed ages ago. However, they were never eaten as an evening snack or in the morning. They were part of the main meal,” Ashok elaborates.

Krish Ashok

Ashok mentions an ancient book ‘Manasollala’ written by a Chalukya emperor called Someswara. The book has recipes from the 11th and 12th century, which gives a sense of what people of the time ate, and has references to some of the dishes that are eaten during breakfast today, which includes Idli. “Called Iddarika this was made only with urad dal. I guess it must have been one hard Idli considering that rice gives softness to idlis,” humours Ashok.

Tamil NaduThe famous food historian KT Achaya in his Indian Food: A Historical Companion, published in 1994, mentions a food resembling the idli, and that it was first mentioned in Indian literature in the year 920, in ‘Vaddaradhane’ written by Shivakotiacharya. One of the earliest prose in Kannada, Shivakotiacharya writes about a dish called iddalige, made from urad dal, which was one of 18 items served “when a lady offers refreshments to a brahmachari who visits her home.” There is detailed description of this in guide book ‘Lokopakara’ written in 1025 by a poet Chavundaraya: To make the iddalige, you must soak urad dal in buttermilk, grind it to the consistency of a fine paste, mix it with the clear water of curd, spice it with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida, and then shape it. (Courtesy Caravan)

There is no mention of if this was steamed. However, by then steaming of food as a technique entered India (South) and so we can safely assume it must have been steamed. However, deep frying was quite popular in south India and goes back thousands of years. And there have also been these deep fried balls made of Urad dal and rice batter that was part of Tamil Nadu cuisine.

Fermentation is yet another process that goes back to several thousands of centuries; to the oldest of the civilisations. “Especially, in the south, fermentation was used to preserve something for a longer time and also enhance the nutrition. For example- milk into yoghurt.”

When did south India start eating rice?

Ashok answers, “Rice cultivation unlike popular perception goes back to 6000 to 7000 years. Having rice on a daily basis is fairly new phenomenon.

India has some variety of millet every 100 km and people used to eat millets on a daily basis. Rice was a rich man’s food, and had only on special occasions. It was during the 20th century after the famines British had to create food security, and for them it worked better to change the Indian eating habits to rice and wheat. The concept of providing subsidized grains through ration shops also goes back to the British.”

While the rice and dal combinations are there in one form or the other across India; in Tamil Nadu Pongal is made using the most traditional dal – moong dal. Toor dal began to be grown much later, which has become the most popular base for sambar.

 South Indian Breakfast

In a country where for every 100 km there is a new cuisine; south tiffins as a concept, has travelled far and wide and has gained acceptance, the roots of which, evidently go way back in time. One thing is for sure, south Indian breakfast – Idli with coconut chutney and sambar, or Dosa with chutney and aloo curry or peanut chutney is surely counted amongst the healthiest of morning meals with carbs, vitamins and proteins in place.

Revathy Shanmugam

This concept of having breakfast, and such an extensive menu, designed to be wholesome enough to provide nutrition through the day is more popular in south India compared to the North, says Revathy Shanmugam. “Energy, vitamins, carbs, proteins and fibre are put together in the breakfast.” Revathy is from Chennai, a Chettinad Food Expert, and has many television shows to her credit.

She talks about other breakfast items popular in the region. Spring Hoppers or Idiyappam is quite a must in Chettinad. It is made out of raw rice in Kerala. However, In Tamil Nadu it is made with mostly boiled rice (idli rice) with a bit of raw rice added, a little butter milk is sprinkled on it and is seasoned before eating with Kosumalli (made from brinjal) or with moong dal sambar made using drum sticks, and potato. Madrasi idiyappam is softer with long strings, adds Revathy.

Kosumalli is a tasty side dish even for Dosa, Idli or Appam.

“Appam is also served with coconut milk or Vada curry. “Vada curry was originally made with left over vadas, but now a days we make vadas fresh in order to make the curry.”

One of the breakfast delicacies is the wholesome Pongal. Revathy elaborates, “Pongal is popularly had during Marghazi month when we offer it to God every day. It has become a delicacy during breakfast, and in some parts of Chettinad, we make it with vegetables seasoned with masala and onions and tomatoes giving it a unique flavour akin to a biryani, and is served with coconut chutney. Very filling and wholesome.”

Adai is yet another popular dish, usually had as an evening snack. Then there is the Vella Paniyaram, deep fried balls made from urad dal and rice batter. This also is served in its sweeter version served with coconut milk. Then there is a dibba rotti, that we make, I have learnt it from the popular Telugu actor Relangi Venkatramaiah’s family were our neighbours. I have learnt so many Andhra dishes from them,” shares Revathy, who has been sharing her knowledge through her programmes on television channels and YouTube.

Across south, tiffin has become a common phenomenon today.

Today breakfast is a common phenomenon, and the south Indian tiffins have attained an immortal status. Most south Indian homes make idli, dosa, vada etc., for their breakfast, and it is mostly vegetarian following an unwritten rule. And, Andhra Pradesh the neighboring state (which was originally part of Madras residency) too has adopted the concept of tiffin, and the dishes as well, and vice versa. And, there are a lot of common dishes and similarities between various south cuisines. For example during winter in some parts of Tamil Nadu, there is a dish similar to Puttu (Kerala) served in the morning especially for kids.

And any day, these tiffins are the ideal as morning meal as they are designed to provide nutrition and energy for the day.