"Crunchy and bland. That's how most sev imported from India tastes," says chef Troy MacLarty of Bollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon. "It's totally one dimensional. If I want the right balance between the nuttiness of chickpeas, the spice of cayenne and the funk of asafetida, I have to make it myself."
MacLarty could have done what most other Indian restaurants do and bought sev, a fried noodle made of chickpea flour and seasoned with turmeric and cayenne. Instead, he chose to make it, five times a week, tinkering repeatedly with the recipe until he finally nailed every step. That detail-oriented puzzle solving appeals to MacLarty should come as no surprise—"I have a degree in biology," he says. "I tend to do things very methodically."
He started by procuring a special press called a sancha to extrude the dough into fine spaghetti-like strands. Then, it was onto the dough trials. He started by using imported chickpea flour but soon switched to Bob's Red Mill, finding that the freshness of the latter made a palpable difference. "Our sev has a good consistency and great flavor—the nuttiness, spice and funk are all in balance," MacLarty says.
Texture is just as important. "Too wet and the dough falls apart in little pieces; too thick and you'll get a hernia trying to cram it through the press," says MacLarty. The right balance is a dough that's tacky to the touch. MacLarty also learned that chickpea flour will continue to soak up water for about 20 minutes, so he now lets the dough rest before adjusting the consistency with water. "It's basically like a pasta dough—flour, salt, water and seasoning," he explains.
After perfecting the dough, MacLarty set about frying the strands. But even that wasn't a straightforward task. "We learned the sev needs to be fried shortly after the dough is made," he says. "The turmeric blooms fairly quickly, and if we wait, the sev takes on a darker, less appetizing color."
Once successfully fried and crispy, the sev tops Bollywood's dahi papri chaat, a snack of house-made wheat crackers, potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, yogurt and various chutneys. MacLarty loves that this fresh, lively dish turns many preconceived notions of Indian food on their head. "It's zesty, funky and crunchy—the sev adds this wonderful nutty component to the dish," he says.
Apparently, a degree in biology does come in handy when it comes to running a restaurant.
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