How true is the saying that the meek shall inherit the earth! Just look at the humble masala dosa going places. After finding place on The Lonely Planet’s Guide to ‘Top Ten Things to Eat Before You Die’ the Masala Dosa, and the generic dosa as such is gaining new converts the world over. And with Dosa Fan clubs mushrooming all over the social media I thought it was time to pen my thoughts on this staple Indian favourite.
I have seen non-South Asians call the dosa a kind of Indian pancake or crepe. I personally find this an insult to the dosa. Both are cooked on griddles/flat pans, and there the similarity ends. I rather think that is akin to calling a sketch done by one of those ‘sketching apps’ on smartphones, a painting along the lines of Ravi Varma. Pancakes and crepes for the most part are made of a single primary ingredient – the ubiquitous all-purpose flour/maida, with eggs, baking powder, butter and milk thrown in. And basic crepes are just pancakes on a diet; only they make up for the loss in thickness with all sorts of stuffing inside.
Now the dosa… dosa is an art, a science, a study in precision and perfection. Here two members of two different plant families – Rice from ‘Family Cereal’ and Black Gram from ‘Family Lentil’ - come together in a happy marriage. I’d call them the Romeo and Juliet of culinary delights. Only, the playwright of this drama scripted no tragedy. Besides, I can think of no couple in history or literature worth remembering unless the love ended in tragedy. In dosa’s case, you just need to get the compatibility or in this case, proportion-factor right.
There are those who swear by the 1:3 ratio and those that swear by the 1:4 ratio, black gram always being in the lesser proportion. Both the ratios work depending on the kind of rice and gram used. Also I think the former refers to those that make the batter in mixies/blenders and the latter for the regular grinder users. And no, I am not going into the traditional batter ground in ‘aattukals’ the way it should be made.
Unlike the lesser pancakes and crepes that just need to be whipped to a smooth batter, it takes considerable labour to get your batter ready. And then the wait to get it to ferment just right. If the ‘sour’ factor is less, the dosa can be pretty bland. Up the sour factor and the tang might be a bit hard to take. So like everything else, that needs to be just right.
In this part of the world, we approach this task with scientific zeal in winter. The fresh batter goes into the oven with the light turned on to provide just the right amount of warmth, and overnight, the batter transforms into a fluffy aerated concoction of wholesome goodness, ready to take on the most ardent dosa connoisseur. Others let it get all warm and cosy, tucked in warm woollen blankets.
I have also heard people claim that their dosas ferment right when they mix the batter using their bare hands. I am no fan of this method and the only after-effect to this claim is that I have given a wide berth to dosas made by said method.
And then the actual making of the dosa. Get the griddle hot, at just the right heat. I believe the traditional dosakkal to be so much superior to the non-stick pans of today. A dash of oil to smoothen things, a drop on the heated griddle to check if it is ready for the batter and pour a ladleful of batter that sizzles onto the griddle. Leave it thick for the thattu dosa, sweep it out into a circle of medium thickness for the regular dosa or go all the way for the paper thin, crunchy roast.
Whatever be the thickness, it is amazing how one gets the perfect round without the help of a compass. A skill that can be compared only to the flawless circles drawn by mamis in agraharams drawing out their kolams. And before you master it, you need to get through the maps of several countries on the griddle.
Throughout the cooking process, you need to maintain the right heat at the right times. Too much heat when you pour the batter will have everything solidifying into a thick sticky mass. Too little heat and you get a half cooked, dried-out excuse of a dosa.
Dosa often wins hands down over its more sober cousin, the idly. While the idly states ‘homely, tame, matronly and predictable’ the dosa proclaims its independence, going from plain to wild, often portraying an adventurous, reckless side that boldly dares to go where no breakfast dish has gone before! Have you seen the dosa menus these days?
And there are the godambu dosas, the rava dosas and the coconut dosas made grinding together raw rice and tender coconut, a personal favourite, with morsels of tender coconut that surprise and delight you when you catch a piece unexpectedly.
And then the most popular of them all –the masala dosa. I never was a fan - until the evening we drove by the Udupi Hotel in Santa Clara about a decade ago when I was pregnant with my second child. I shall always remember that night not just as the day I stood in line for more than an hour to eat a masala dosa, but also as the day I became a cliché - pregnant women and masala dosas. Today, masala dosas are the only things that could ever draw me into a vegetarian restaurant.
Apparently, the masala dosa was invented in Udupi (it could not be anywhere else) as an offering for the Unni Krishnan in the famous temple there. The priests wanted to offer more variety to the Lord and I can see him relishing the delicacy with the potatoes playing peekaboo inside the dosa- with a big dollop of butter of course!
I also realize that there are dosa purists who consider the masala dosa an abomination. And will not even think about having dosa with anything other than the usual chutney, sambhar, podi combo. I wonder what they would say about my most favorite dosa of them all – the egg dosa or the firecracker combinations of fish curry and dosa or mutton curry and dosa, the latter being a staple for Deepavali, where I come from.
But even an adventurous foodie like me would draw the line at some of the dosa avatars we get to meet these days – the Chinese spring roll dosa and the Italian pizza dosa. No thank you! But I guess, when it comes to taste, to each his own.
If my friends on the social grapevine are to be believed, dosa has been around for millennia, with mention being found even in Tamil Sangham literature. Bless the culinary prophet who dreamed up this delight. Come on, it takes nothing less than divinely inspired zeal to actually decide to grind together rice and lentils, heat up a flat pan and pour out the batter in perfect rounds.
And going by the way its popularity is growing, the humble dosa is here to stay, for millennia more.
image courtesy: spiceycurriez.blogspot.com