If foods could be given human characteristics, then the South Indian dosa would be the friend who does not really push himself forward but whose presence cannot be completely ignored either. Singularly different, it exudes the confidence to be comfortable in its own skin, without the need to constantly change its personality.
There are certain features synonymous to South India and dosa definitely sits somewhere on top of the list. History tells us that this indigenous dish dates back to sixth century, yet few changes have been made in its original recipes — a testimony to its continual success and dependable nature. Today, this gastronomic delight has travelled far and wide across the globe and is increasingly found on menus of Indian restaurants.
Like most South Indian foods, dosa is primarily made out of rice and gram, so if you’re looking for wheat-based cuisines, it is best to head north. You will, however, find an element of spice in the food, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be the ‘mirch-masala’ kind — at times the taste is so subtle, you have to remind yourself that it contains spices. And for those sitting down for a hearty dosa meal at a restaurant, here is a word of warning: if you do not understand South Indian languages, do not attempt to read the names of the different kinds of dosas.
There is a good possibility you will end up with a headache, with a possible side effect of loss of appetite — which will be a pity since the food is worth every bite.
Fortunately, in most parts of the world, an outsider’s initiation to South Indian cuisine begins with masala dosa, which is fairly easy to pronounce, and just as tasty. Those who have had the pleasure of relishing this fare will understand why Huffington Post included it in the list of 10 foods that one should eat before one dies. The flat, fermented crepe-like savoury pancake traditionally comes armed with an arsenal of sambhaar, potato bhujiya and coconut chutney; however, nowadays, a variety of stuffings are replacing potato, including spinach, cauliflower, paneer and even chicken, to widen its appeal among the religiously carnivorous.
You don’t have to be south Indian to enjoy a dose of dosa
However man cannot live on plain dosa alone. Hence we have appam (a sweeter sibling to dosa eaten with coconut milk) and uthappam (fluffy pancake topped with onions, coriander, chillies and various spices), Mysore masala dosa (which uses black gram lentil and fenugreek seeds), onion rava dosa (made out of semolina) and podi dosa (liberally sprinkled with a mix of spice powders). These are but a few variations of same or similar batter; a comprehensive list will take a lot more space considering the centuries it has taken to create and perfect the different variety that the cuisine boasts of.
Since dosa is typically bland tasting, the responsibility of spicing it up largely rests on its condiments. The magic lies not just in the variety of bhujiya, but also in chutneys, which can number up to more than 40, if not more. From using coconut to tomato to vegetables as base, the selection is wide enough to tempt one to try a new flavour every day. The sambhar, on the other hand remains constant, a scrumptious combination of lentils, vegetables, spices and tamarind.
Preparing a dosa is no less an art, given the techniques involved. This is not a dish that you can spring up in a jiffy when guests arrive for dinner uninvited; it requires at least a day of planning in advance for the rice and gram flour to soak in water and to ferment. The fermentation process is particularly important, not just because it lends the right texture to the batter, but also because it breaks down the starch making the crepe easily digestible.
Once the batter is ready, ladle some out on a tawwa and quickly spread it out using the back of the ladle in a quick circular motion. No tardiness here, mind you, or you will be left with a thick, undercooked pancake. A tip for the newbies: use a non-stick pan while coating it lightly with oil. The trick is to ensure that the batter is of the right consistency and the pan does not get too hot.
What makes dosa especially appealing is that it makes as good a breakfast as it does dinner or lunch. Traditionally, it is eaten as a morning meal, but ask its hard-core fans and they will tell you that one doesn’t need an excuse to savour it at any given time of the day. They also make great sandwiches, although, typically, dosa should be dipped in its condiments for the perfect culinary blend of rice and spice. Enjoy!
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 7th, 2015