The worst dosa I ate was at the Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett some fifteen years ago. I was arguing with my best friend, Jennifer. I’d like to think it was something important like nuclear non-proliferation or artificial insemination, but it was probably something totally mundane like where we would go for dinner. Jennifer being of a mulish disposition stopped listening when we reached Amagansett Square. Guessing correctly that hunger pangs were at least partly responsible for my shrillness, she stalked off in search of sustenance.
I lay down on the cool grass and stretched. Elm and chestnut trees rustled in the wind. White buildings with wicket gates masqueraded as stores behind me. Little girls in frilly frocks threw a ball nearby. The traffic on Main Street was reassuringly clogged. The sky was blue; the air was sweet. Someone was roasting corn nearby. I closed my eyes and sighed.
“Here, have a dosa,” said Jennifer, handing me a wrap.
As peacemaking gestures go, this was right on. Jennifer knew I loved dosas. It is hard for anyone who grew up in India not to.
I nodded in acknowledgement, bit into the dosa-wrap, and gagged. My tongue encountered roasted butternut squash, roasted beets and goat cheese in rapid succession. Now, there are many places where roasted butternut squash would taste sublime (well, sublime may be pushing it as I consider it to be a fairly insipid vegetable) but inside a dosa is not one of them. I tried Jennifer’s dosa. Inside was the equally weird combination of grilled Portobello mushrooms, roasted onions, spinach and goat cheese. These weren’t dosas. They were imposters.
Dosas are commonly described as South Indian crepes, but the description doesn’t do them justice. It is true that they are round like crepes but dosas unlike crepes are savory. The batter is different. In South India where I come from, dosas are almost a religion. We have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most households prepare and store a big pot of dosa-batter as insurance against unexpected guests. When all else fails, the sentiment goes, there is always dosa.
The nice thing about dosas as opposed to their cousin, the idli (which are steamed dumplings) is that the batter is fairly fool-proof and easy to prepare. The traditional recipe calls for one part urad dal (white lentils) to two parts rice. You soak the dal and rice separately for a few hours before grinding them together along with a teaspoon of salt. Indians typically use a type of rice called Ponni parboiled rice, widely available at Patel Brothers and other Little India outlets. But the nice thing about a dosa is that it isn’t finicky.
In New York, I’ve walked to Kalustyan’s on a whim, bought a bag of urad dal and ground it with two parts of the Thai jasmine rice to make excellent dosas. The uptown branch of Fairway sells parboiled rice in the Spanish foods section which gives the dosas an even more authentic taste.
A good dosa has to be thin and even; golden brown and crisp on the outside and soft inside. The skillet has to be coated with sesame oil which imparts its slightly nutty flavor to the dosa. Saravana Bhavan and Pongal in downtown Manhattan serve wonderful dosas. In the Bay Area, numerous outlets including Komala Vilas (KV), and Udipi Palace do just as well. Like I said, it is hard to mess up a dosa; unless you happen to be Hampton Chutney of course.
The idea of filling a dosa with sacrilegious ingredients like tuna and spinach probably from the masala-dosa, which as it turns out is one of my favorite Indian dishes. In Bangalore where I live now, there are legendary restaurants that are short on ambience but turn out extremely flavorful masala dosas with insouciance. The masala dosa originated in the nearby princely town of Mysore and is known throughout India as the Mysore masala dosa. Its distinctive taste comes from a fiery red sauce that is brushed on the inside before serving.
In Bangalore, I go to a roadside dive called Nalas for my Mysore masala dosas. There are no seats, only tiny bar-tables where patrons stand and eat their food. I elbow my way through the crowds outside, wait in line before the cashier to place my order. There are just four types of dosas on offer—the plain dosa with no filling, the masala dosa with a potato-and-onion filling, the Mysore masala dosa with its spicy coating and the benne dosa or butter roast served with a dollop of butter on top. When it is my turn, the cashier looks up disinterestedly. With four items on the menu, he hardly expects patrons to surprise him.
“One Mysore masala,” I bark and hand over the equivalent of a dollar. He gives me a white chit which I take to the counter a few feet away. Behind the counter is an open kitchen with a giant flat pan on which ten or twenty dosas are prepared at one time. My white chit joins the queue. I watch the four men work in tandem. They are wearing white banians (or undershirts) and dhotis (like sarongs) to allay the sweltering heat inside. One man pours the batter and makes perfect circles. Sesame oil is sprinkled liberally making a pleasant sizzling sound. The waiting populace smacks its lips. We watch the man flip the circles so that the batter cooks on the other side. A minute later, he flips it back again before inserting the potato-and-onion filling to some. The dosas are plated, coconut chutney is offered as a condiment before each plate is handed out. We each retreat to a corner table to greedily devour our dosa.
I break off a piece with my fingers—you have to eat dosas with your hands; there is no other civilized way for this is a dish that makes a mockery of accoutrements like a fork and knife. I dip the piece into coconut chutney and chew. There is crispness at first followed by the fiery coating and then the soft comfort of lemony potatoes and onions. Each bite is a play of tastes and textures, and like other great dishes of the world a meal onto itself. I finish my Mysore masala, both sated and satisfied.
Recipes vary for the red paste inside a Mysore masala. Some cooks use a powder made with channa dal, sesame seeds and dried red chilies, somewhat like za’atar but a lot more fiery. Indians call this “gunpowder” or chutney-powder even though its Tamil name is “milagai-podi.” Like za’atar, the powder is mixed with oil—sesame not olive—and smeared over the inside of the dosa. Another recipe calls for fried onions, tomatoes and one green chili, which is then ground to a paste. I actually like the tangy tomato paste better than the gunpowder.
Another joint I frequent in Bangalore is called Janata hotel in Malleshwaram, the Brahmin bastion of old Bangalore. This is a world removed from the gleaming towers of Indian IT that have brought fame to this city. Here, vegetable vendors pushing trolleys still stop before homes and yell their wares in a sing-song mix of native and English, “Cauliflower, carrot, thakkali (tomato), bendekai (okra).” The sari-clad lady of the house ambles out and the two get into a spirited slanging match over the price and freshness of the vegetables. Outrage is feigned on both sides at the prices, stern words exchanged before the vegetables change hands. Other wondrous creatures trawl the street. There are the ‘knife-sharpeners’—men who carry a sharp wheel on their shoulders and sharpen kitchen-knives on demand. They make a strange hooting sound and the ladies immediately know to pull out their blunt kitchen knives. The hunched man sets up his wheel-stand outside her kitchen and runs each individual knife over the wheel which he runs with a lever by his foot. Sparks fly and the knife comes out shiny and sharp. Most homes in this neighborhood eat dosas for breakfast and dinner.
For breakfast, the kids usually have the hearty uthappam before heading to school. Select chopped vegetables—onions, green pepper and tomato– are sprinkled on the batter after it is poured on the skillet, the more nutritious to make it my dear. Uthappams are thicker than dosas since chopped vegetables enhance (or detract from depending on your point of view) the batter. At night, the seniors in the multi-generational joint family have light plain dosas that are easy to digest. Restaurants in this neighborhood cater to this exacting crowd for whom taste is a way of life and value for money is paramount. The Janata hotel scores on both counts.
You walk in and sidle into a bare marble-topped table sans menu or silverware. Eventually a waiter comes to you and gazes expectantly. “What do you have?” you ask even though you know exactly what you are going to have, having eaten the same thing on every visit. But one of the pleasures of eating at old-style Indian establishments is listening to the waiter recite the menu. The waiter takes a deep breath and begins, “Plain dosa, butter roast, masala dosa, butter masala, rava dosa, rava masala, Mysore masala, onion uthappam, tomato uthappam…..” At this point, you interrupt to give your order, “I’ll have the butter masala.”
He nods and plonks down a stainless-steel glass of water which you, being raised on bottled, wouldn’t touch anyway. After that, it is just ‘time-pass’ as Indians say, till the food comes out.
It is amazing how a dollop of butter can transform a dosa (or indeed any dish). A butter masala is for those times when you don’t want to go spicy. It is pure comfort food. Crisp dosa with a potato filling served with melting butter on top. Coconut chutney optional. Janata Hotel is an institution in Bangalore.
I would be remiss if I finished my dosa exposition without mentioning the rava dosa. Rava or Sooji is plain old Farina or cream of wheat. The batter is made with equal parts rava and rice flour and is a favorite of those who like extra-crispness in their dosa. The rava dosa batter requires a special talent in pouring it over the skillet. First of all, the batter is watery. Deft pouring gives the dosa the appearance of a fern-frond, albeit a round one. The ladle shouldn’t touch the pan. Instead you drop the batter on the pan like Jackson Pollock did his paints except more densely. Most South Indian cooks spike the rava dosa batter with cumin seeds and diced green chilies. If you add onions to this, it becomes and onion rava; if you insert the potato filling, it becomes an onion rava masala dosa and if you top it with butter, it becomes of course, the butter onion rava masala dosa, the mother of all dosas. Purists dislike this overload however—it is like adding too many ingredients to a hamburger. Less is more here.
My grandmother made the best dosas in the world. Of course, right? Part of the reason was that she rationed out dosas to her ten grandchildren, which made them irresistible. Come summer holidays and all the grandchildren were sent to our sprawling ancestral home. There was no camp when I grew up. Instead my grandfather marshaled our activities and my grandmom fed the crew. On most days, breakfast comprised dishes that are easy to mass-produce—upma, pongal, idlis and occasionally even toast. Dosas are painstaking to prepare for ten hungry grandchildren because you have to make each one individually. Dosa days were therefore, as rare as a summer monsoon.
Dosa mornings in our household always involved a bit of jostling. We would troop, all ten of us, into the dark cavernous kitchen lit only by the slanting rays of the early morning sun. We would sit on the floor, stainless steel plates in front of us and wait for the dosas. It took a lot of skill for us younger children to get first in line. Usually it involved bribing the elder kids with marbles or offering to do their chores; abject pleading worked as did threats of squealing to the elders about their midnight jaunts to catch the late-show movie. There was always the threat of being out-maneuvered by an even more Machiavellian cousin or sibling. My grandmother didn’t realize all this. Indeed, she beamed proudly as she watched her bathed and powdered grandchildren with slicked-back oiled hair take their seats in an organized fashion on the floor. I was usually fourth in line. Being the only girl in a family of boys, I had nothing to offer as bribe to get ahead. None of my cousins were interested in my cooking-set or wooden dolls.
My grandmother oiled the two skillets and we were off. We all watched her as she poured a ladle full of dosa-batter on the skillet. The soft flesh in her fore-arm shook slightly as she spread the batter into perfectly concentric circles. A spoon full of sesame oil; a comforting sizzle; an indescribable aroma. Deftly, my grandmother folded the dosa in half and set it on the first two plates while the rest of us watched greedily. Waiting for my turn probably added to the taste of my dosa as well waiting for my next one which would only come after all ten kids had been fed their first dosa. Each of us devised techniques. You had to eat slowly or you’d be done with your first one before the dosa even hit the sixth of ten plates. Although I didn’t realize it then, it was my grandmother’s dosas that taught me the basics of civilized eating, of taking small morsels, chewing each bite, savoring each mouthful and conversing with your neighbors in between. Well, conversing was probably pushing it because most of our spare time in between dosas was spent plotting how to hasten the process or steal from neighboring plates.
When I grew up and became a student in America, my dorm room always had two things: a bag or rice flour and a box of farina or cream of wheat. Whenever hunger pangs hit me at midnight, or when I missed my homeland too much, I mixed equal quantities of both with just enough water and a pinch of salt to make dosas in my tiny skillet. If I had onions or green chilies, I would add them to the mix. Mostly, I cooked the dosas with olive oil since sesame oil was hard to get in South Hadley, Massachusetts in the late eighties. I am not sure if it was the sizzling sound or the smell but soon enough Jennifer would emerge out of her room followed by Celia and Marf (Martha). “Line up, guys,” I would say, revelling in my grandmother’s role.
And I would cook dosas for them.