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Dosa Do

April 7, 2014

When you do something enough times, eventually your hands can execute the job without involving your brain. Just a few years ago, when I started trying to teach myself how to play the guitar, I could barely form chords. The notion of being able to transition from one chord to another in any sort of musical way was laughable, at best.

But like all things, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Eventually, it gets so easy, one might even forget it was hard in the first place.

This past weekend I went to take a class on making dosas. For those who are unaware, these are an impossibly thin and crispy south Indian pancake that is typically filled with spiced potatoes. The instructor was a little flabbergasted that anyone would be interested in learning such a dish, because she considered them to be so easy.

I look forward to the day when making dosa is as easy for me as scrambling eggs. But when left to my own devices, what I learned almost led to disaster.

Dosas at home are different from dosas served in restaurants or from street vendors. Professionals will have giant griddles to make ridiculously large and thin dosas that can be rolled or folded into showstopping dishes. At home you are limited to the size of your pan, and I was instructed to fold each dosa in a manner that’s more reminiscent of a quesadilla.

While the showmanship of this version may be lacking, the flavor and textures are still there.

I was sent home with some batter. My instructor had one of the coolest tools I have ever seen. It’s an electric stone grinder, and it’s perfect for grinding soaked rice and lentils into a wet flour. Making the batter myself is going to be tricky at best in the food processor, but now at least I know what I’m shooting for texturally.

After the batter ferments and expands in volume, it needs to be thinned down before being made into pancakes. Like crepes, the first ones never come out well. I knew this, but still panicked a bit upon seeing my failed first creation.

The paranoia wasn’t completely misplaced. I thought I had thinned out the batter too much and then was filled with self-doubt about if this dish could be made on my well seasoned cast iron or if it truly did require a synthetic non-stick surface.

In the end, my pancakes came out fine. They weren’t perfect, but for a first unsupervised attempt, I felt like they were within the limits of acceptable.

The way I was taught was to first sprinkle a little bit of neutral cooking oil on the surface of the pan. Then the batter was laid down in circular motions and spread thin. Afterward, a few more drops of oil were splashed on the top of the pancake. To help the top cook, the dosa was covered with a pan lid and checked periodically for doneness. When the edges of the crepe started looking well-browned and ready to release, and a thin spatula could be run underneath the dosa, it was time to break out the filling.

I really loved this filling, and never did I imagine that so few ingredients were required to make such tasty spiced potatoes.

First, you have to cook the potatoes. I baked mine, but they can be boiled. For the class, they were microwaved. They then get peeled and chunked into small bits. It’s better to do this with your hands (once they are cool enough to handle) than with a knife, for textural purposes.

The flavor comes from taking a large pinch of cumin and toasting it in hot oil. A smoldering heat comes from however many chilis you want to add. Sweetness comes from adding diced onions. Color comes from the turmeric. When the onions are fully soft, you add the chunked potatoes, and adjust their seasoning with salt, chopped fresh cilantro and lemon juice to taste.

Part of the trick is to make sure not to put too much filling in the dosa. Just enough to have a little burst of flavor in every bite, but not too much as to overwhelm the crispy crepe itself. It takes a lot less than one might expect.

Other highlights from the class were learning about adai, a dosa made entirely from lentils, and how to make a spicy coconut chutney. The chutney calls for a bunch of ingredients I don’t keep around the house, so I’ll need to pick up in the days to come. And I still have some of the adai batter, which I’ll fry up and feed to the kids. With any luck they will enjoy it and this simple protein rich batter can become a regular side dish on chana masala night.

When I’m at the store I’ll have to pick up some more sweetened mango puree. Kids pretty much love anything when it’s served with mango lassi. Maybe I won’t need luck if I can stack the deck.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2014 1:34 pm

    [indescribable sounds of desire and longing]

  2. April 8, 2014 11:16 am

    I’m lucky to work in an office with a lot of good Indian friends. We often talk about food and share recipes. After reading your entry on dosas, I hurried down the hall to ask my friend if she would give me some tips. She said that though dosas made from scratch are always preferable, there is a box brand called Gits that is very good. Saves a lot of time, but you still have to master the technique (much easier than crepes though). :)

  3. Joanne the K permalink
    May 6, 2014 7:13 pm

    I want to taste test when you are back in Albany! I tired making my own dosas several years ago. While they tasted good, they were quite thick. An Indian friend at the time was astonished that I would even try to make them as she pointed out that they are quite difficult to make. I guess opinions vary on that. Just had a fantastic dosa in Atlanta at Chapatti (actually in Decatur, GA). While Southern Indian restaurants abound in the Atlanta area, they are very limited in the Northeast. I think we need to bring in more Southern Indian families willing to open restaurants :).

  4. enough already! permalink
    May 7, 2014 5:23 pm

    Speaking of dosa, I finally got to try Parivar for lunch today. ( I’ve been a Dosa lover since I ate one at a restaurant in North Jersey years ago, and was on a quest for them locally until Karavalli arrived.).
    Our dosa was delicious, as was our mini-meal and wonderful batter coated long green chile. This is a great place for a casual Indian meal. Thanks, Daniel for recommending it in a prior post.

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