"Many people don't realize that much of the infrastructure of modern India was planned over dosa at Indian Coffee House, a chain of cafés that serve coffee and dosa," Jessi Singh, chef of Babu Ji in NYC, tells me over the phone. "After India gained independence in 1947, young intellectuals gathered in these dosa shops to plan how the country would run once the British had left."
We had no idea. But regardless of the historical and political significance the dish holds, we do know that we've always been fascinated by the crisp, airy, crepe-like Indian pancake made from lentils and rice (see the recipe)—even more so now that Indian food is having a renaissance here in the U.S. But we also find the dish alluring, because the technique alone is mesmerizing—and it requires skill. In fact, most of the chefs we reach out to warn us that making a dosa is no simple feat.
In the traditional masala dosa, the crepe is folded over creamy spiced potatoes to form a delicious architectural masterpiece. Although it's commonly formed into a cylindrical dome, we've seen a multitude of geometric shapes, including cones and triangles, but, really, it's all about the contrasts in textures and flavors. Dosas are typically served with condiments like coconut chutney, chile oil and sambar (a traditional stew of okra and tamarind), so you get all sorts of sweet, hot, sour and savory notes as you tear apart the dosa (with your hands preferably) and dip into the various accompaniments.
So what makes an ideal dosa? "A perfect dosa to me is almost a magical oxymoron," Irani says. "Crispy yet pliable, light yet chewy, tangy and seasoned but with a hint of sweetness, the crispness of the dosa working with the soft warmth of the potato filling, and accented with the sharpness of the chutneys."
As we dove headfirst into dosa land to make our ultimate version, we picked up some tips along the way.
Batter up. "The flavor and texture of the batter are the most important components of a great dosa," Troy MacLarty, chef of Bollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, says. The batter itself is made of only four ingredients: rice, urad dal (husked and split black lentils), fenugreek seeds and water. The first three ingredients are soaked in water and then blended to form a smooth batter that is then left out to ferment.
While we call for an overnight fermentation, you can take the process even a bit longer. "Most recipes will say overnight, but it's generally quite a bit hotter in India, especially in the South where you typically find dosas," MacLarty adds. He and Singh both ferment their batter for two to three days to allow just the right amount of fermentation.
Thin is in. "Whoever can master heat control can master the dosa," Singh emphasizes. You're going to want to get a cast-iron pan searing hot, then ever so slightly grease it before pouring in your batter. We found that too much oil prevented the batter from spreading easily, but too little caused the dosa to stick. A light brushing is the happy medium. Iin the end, "Nobody wants a greasy dosa," Singh adds.
"I watched a lot of YouTube videos and then practiced for quite a while before I felt at all capable," MacLarty says. "When you're on the street in India, it's a bit intimidating, because they've got a real practiced hand." We felt the same way when we tried making our first few—but then discovered the trick of using the ladle to quickly spread the batter into a paper-thin layer. You don't flip the dosa, so give it a peek often to keep track of when it's ready. Once you get into the rhythm, it becomes similar to making any other crepe.
Fillers are encouraged. "The classic filling of potato and curry leaves should be well balanced with onions, turmeric, mustard seeds and a hint of green chiles," Manish Mehrotra, chef of Indian Accent in NYC, explains about the classic masala filling for dosa. "As far as other filings go, the sky's the limit, but they should be dry, so they don't dampen the crispy texture of the dosa." We followed suit and made a classic masala filling for our dosa, which we did indeed cook until it was dry. The condiments served with it add moisture, too, so keep that in mind.
Now you can put this warming, satisfying dish on your to-do(sa) list.
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