Food Talk: In Praise of the Dosa
Contributed by: Lakshmy Raman
Publishers’ Note: We present what we hope will be a periodic series of reader submissions related to food and traditions representing our culturally diverse readership.
Most people of Indian origin are familiar with the ‘dosa’ – or doshai as it is called typically in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southern India. One could refer to it as a crepe, but it is so much more than that.
Often served for breakfast or as a tiffin (a smaller meal served in the late afternoon hours as a snack), dosas are traditionally made of rice and skinless black gram lentil. These are soaked overnight and then ground into batter with a touch of methi or fenugreek seeds.
There are endless discussions on the right proportion of the rice to lentil, but of course the right proportion is always the one used by one’s ‘mom’.
The dosa was a staple in our house, and we would never tire of it – an emotion that I am delighted is shared by my daughter, who has been raised in the United States. Childhood friends still talk nostalgically of my mom serving them hot dosas on any visit… often declaring that no restaurant could beat her recipes.
These days fresh dosa batter is easily available in Indian stores in the United States–though I prefer to grind my own. My grandmother would grind the batter in a granite aatukallu or grinding stone. My mom used an electric stainless steel grinder, and now I use a much sleeker version of that.
The smooth grinding is just one step of the process; the batter has to be allowed to ferment, a task not easy in cold New England weather. I leave it inside my oven with the light on – to provide the heat required for easy fermentation. The perfect batter should rise considerably to hold the promise of creating the perfectly soft white dosa.
Of course, the job is not yet done. A doshai kallu (iron skillet) or a non-stick flat pan is used to make the dosa. When the pan is warm, the batter is poured in the center and spread out into a large circle. A teaspoon of oil is added along the edges to provide a tinge of crispiness. It takes much practice to get this right, a feat I am happy to say I have accomplished now.
I have the most wonderful memories of sitting at the kitchen table as my mom deftly made dosas and piled them up on my plate. Often they would be accompanied by a lentil and vegetable stew called sambar or a coconut chutney or even spicy, mashed potatoes. However, even just a plain dosa with a little ghee (clarified butter) is enough to make one feel rapturous about the glory of our first ancestors who came up with this recipe.
Visit your local Indian restaurant and choose from an array of dosa options. Go try it. And while you are at it, order some lentil or medu vadas (fried doughnuts). Now that is a story and recipe for another day…