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Author Notes: The moment I first tasted this beguiling little South Indian crepe, some (undisclosed) number of years ago, I fell in love.
Any food that makes me smile is a winner, and I promise you: it is impossible not to smile when you are about to break off a piece of crispy, savory, crepe-thin bliss. (I mean it. Just image search Google for "Happy people eating dosa". It's a thing.)
For the dosa-uninitiated among you, get thee to your local hole-in-the-wall Madras Cafe or Udipi stat! (Every city has at least two. Or a hundred, depending. Just find one).
You see, it's impossible to describe how good a dosa is in text. In fact, I almost don't want to. Dosas don't sound very appetizing to describe: they're basically thin (or thick, if that's your fancy) crepes made from a batter of soaked, ground and fermented lentils and white rice. Yes, I know. Ew.
But. Don't judge. Just try it...and then marvel that such an odd, seemingly unappetizing combination of ingredients can produce something so smile-worthy.
My dad first introduced me to dosa back when I was a kid. "Here," he told me solemnly, sliding the paper-thin, golden-brown, endless crepe toward my saucer-sized eyes, "is your entry to the doorsteps of heaven".
Obligingly, I followed my dad's dosa-eating example. I pieced off a crispy edge, scooped up some golden potatoes, dunked the dosa-potato parcel in the steaming hot gravy, and popped it in my mouth.
And I was gone. Dosa, you had me at "doorsteps".
For a long time, I sated emergency midnight dosa cravings with Trader Joe's frozen masala dosa (which are actually pretty good!). But you foodies know that frozen pales in comparison to the real thing. So I woke up on January 1, 2013, determined to pursue a long-standing New Years' resolution. This was the magic year; I would finally meet the challenge head on and conquer it. NO. TURNING. BACK. That's right: I was going to make a dosa. From scratch.
My mom is undoubtedly the best dosa maker in the world. I'd logically turn to her for advice, except - like most Indian culinary genius moms - she is also the worst standardized-recipe provider in the world.
Not to get all Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni here, but for my mom, cooking is extemporaneous, a real-time inspiration...marked by on-the-fly pinches of powders and masalas, a carefully-timed crackle of mustard seeds here, a strategic handful of ground cashews there. Asking my mom to outline her recipe is like asking Van Gogh to describe the precise brushstrokes of his visual masterpieces. ("Um...I just dabbled some blue here and green there and it just turned into...this thing I call 'Starry Night'?")
So I turned to the Internet, my never-fail source of wisdom. I immersed myself in Everything Dosa: scouring blogs, reading up on fermentation science, learning what rice amylopectin was and why it mattered, watching videos of friendly Indian moms casually whipping out dosa batter like they were toasting bread, collecting sage pieces of internet advice from Indian grandmothers and pro tips from restaurant chefs.
It can be complicated, I learned, for a dosa neophyte. Scores of food forums are dedicated to fermentation troubleshooting issues, optimal soaking times and rice:dal ratios, soggy dosa woes, and debates on whether hand-mixing dosa batter produces better results.
But despite all these nuances, the whole concept of dosa batter is really pretty simple. Essentially, you soak some rice, and you soak some Indian lentils (split and skinned urad dal, to be exact, which has the James Bond-esque scientific name of "vigna mungo" - how cool is that?!?) and fenugreek seeds. You then blend the soaked dals/seeds and rice into batter. You let the batter sit overnight in a warm, dark place. Add salt, a bit more water to thin, and that's it!! You're on your way to making DOSA HEAVEN.
To be honest, the first time I made this, I was prepared for failure. (I'd already brought out some Trader Joe's goodies as my backup dinner). I mean, I was a dosa first-timer!
But then, it happened so quickly I almost missed it. As I swirled the batter on my cast-iron pan, suddenly the dosa was getting golden brown and crispy. Applying my foolproof is-this-recipe-working litmus test - does it look, sound and smell in any way like what my mom makes at home? - this little guy was PASSING. With flying colors! It was sizzling, it was round, and it smelled like dosa!
I flipped My First Dosa to the plate. My ego grew comfortably as the dosa expertly folded over and glistened invitingly with a coconut-oil sheen. And then I dug in: As I pieced off the first edge, dunked it into some sambar and popped it in my mouth, it happened.
Doorsteps to heaven. Just like always.
So friends, if you've been on the fence about making a dosa: it's time. Seriously. If I can do it, anyone can.
To help you along, I've tried to create the dosa recipe I wish I'd found when I was searching the internet - tailored for the complete dosa beginner, painstakingly detailed, collating internet research and months of watching my mom cook. It looks ridiculously long, but don't let it scare you off. Again - if I can do it, anyone can.
Here's to your future piece of heaven!
Recipe Notes for the Aspiring Dosa Chef:
Urad Dal and "Ponni" (parboiled) rice are available at your local Indian store (or Amazon.com). If you can't find parboiled rice (which is best for dosa), use long-grain white or Arborio rice. (Arborio is probably better because it has a higher starch-amylopectin content, which helps the yeast activate and the batter thicken up.)
Other chef-genius tips I collected: mix the batter with your hands for at least 3-4 minutes to help wild yeast activate; use uniodized salt (or add iodized salt at the end, after fermentation); don't blend the rice/dal with too much water (you can always add water later to the final batter). And my mom likes to add a handful of cooked white rice to the soaked rice before blending to make a crisper dosa. (Right, mom?)
Finally, South Indians traditionally use refined sesame oil or ghee when they make dosas. You can use any neutral oil. But I personally love dosas made with coconut oil. —Macedoine
Makes: 15 medium sized dosas
cups parboiled (Ponni), long-grain, or Arborio white rice
cup skinned, split black lentils (urad dal)
tablespoons split yellow peas (chana dal)
teaspoon fenugreek (methi) seeds
coconut oil (or other oil) for frying
plenty of (non-chlorinated) water for soaking
- Rinse the rice. Soak in plenty of water.
- Rinse the dals and fenugreek seeds. Soak both together, in plenty of water.
- After at least eight hours and up to overnight, drain the dal/seed combo and reserve the soaking water.
- Add two tablespoons of the soaking water to the dal/seed combo, place in a good-quality durable blender and blend.
- As you blend, add more water, a little at a time, to help the blending process. Stop the blender periodically and scrape down the sides to make sure it blends evenly. You'll probably need to add about 1/2 cup of water. But don't add too much- you want it to be like pancake batter.
- Keep blending until the batter is pureed completely, foamy and grit-free. From what I read, pureeing the dal-seed mixture well is crucial to a good batter. I blended for about 3 minutes total.
- Now empty the blender (but don't rinse it - leave some of the dal batter in there) and place the dal-seed batter into the large glass/ceramic bowl.
- Add the drained rice with a bit of the soaking water to the blender container. Blend, adding some water as you go. It took me about 2-3 minutes. Note that the rice won't (and shouldn't) blend completely - it'll be mostly blended but you should still see some "grits" in there. (This, apparently, helps a dosa become crisp).
- Now add the blended rice batter to the dal-seed batter sitting in that large bowl. Add salt. Mix the two batters with your hands very well, about 2-3 minutes. You want them to be totally mixed into one another.
- Cover the bowl and place in an oven with the oven light on. The light keeps the temperature warm enough for fermentation.
- After 12-24 hours, take a look. Your batter should have risen, and should be thick and cheesy in texture (with bubbles). If it is, success! If it isn't, wait a bit longer. And pray to the Grandmother Cooking Gods. Do a little Dosa rain dance.
- Now prepare the pan: heat an empty cast iron pan on med-high heat. Rub some coconut oil (or other oil) on the pan and sprinkle some water on it. When it sizzles, you know the pan's hot enough.
- Take out however much batter you need and thin it with water, so it's a pourable consistency. (Store the rest of the batter in the fridge.) Spread one ladle of dosa on the pan and spread in concentric circles with the back of the ladle. Be calm. Go slowly and try to stay even. Make it as thin as you want. And try to keep it in a circle, but no-one's judging. (You could always take a page from my dad's book and just say you are an expert "triangle dosa" maker. Ahem, dad.)
- Add a teaspoon of coconut oil around the edges of the dosa, and watch the dosa turn golden brown. When it's golden, flip it over with the spatula. Wait a little, then flip it onto a plate.
- Piece off a crispy edge of dosa. Dunk in some chutney and/or sambar (maybe will have a recipe forthcoming). Pop in mouth. Close eyes, and wait.
- Enter the doorsteps of heaven. And thank me (and my mom, and the South Indian Grandmother Cooking Gods) later.