This winter I have fed my addiction to South Indian cuisine by plunging snow white, steamed cakes (known as idli) in spicy broths, like rasam and sambar. Entranced, I have observed how the simple patties, made of rice and lentils (or sometimes semolina), draw multi-layered flavors from the liquid, like sponges, and carry the perfect union of attraction and diversity into the mouth. There must be a genius mind behind such harmony and compatibility! I am astonished by how a couple of humble ingredients create such an interesting character, story and mood.
Another favorite that has been a weekly fair in our home is dosa. Now that I think about it, rice and dal batter has been fermenting in a clay pot in a warm nook of our kitchen every fortnight; and, when I have run out of it, I have made an “instant” batter. Or, almost instant, because there are degrees of “immanency”, which I will explain later. Before that, let’s have a closer look at dosa!
Whether paper-thin or a bit thicker, they look like crépes or pancakes but feature the crispiness of a wafer. They are usually made from urad dal (split, dehusked seeds of black gram, not to be confused with black lentils used in European – especially French – cuisine) and rice that are soaked and, then, ground into a fine paste and fermented in room temperature until the mixture expands and adapts a mildly sour temper. The process increases nutritional value and digestibility, which is necessary because urad dal is one of the heavier lentils containing a large amount of vegetarian protein.
Sometimes mung dal is used instead of urad. There is also a variety of dosa made from wheat or semolina. In my upcoming book, there will be a recipe of both, the traditional urad dal dosa and the semolina one (rava dosa) which is especially fun to make: the batter is plastered onto a hot pan, by hand, as if it were wet cement!
Of the pulses, mung dal is most suitable for all body types or humors; its’ chemical breakdown is faster and, thus, the nutrients are easily absorbed into a blood stream. It has a mild aroma in comparison to other beans. I have found it very good for dosa because it leaves a content but light feeling after eating. It can - but does not have to - be fermented which is helpful when you want to have a substantial but quick meal or snack: after soaking for thirty minutes, you can grind and use it. Of course, it is better if you have a hunch the day before and immerse the lentils and rice in water for overnight and ferment the batter for a day! But, in an emergency, you can safely use the shortcut and even substitute rice with rice flour. That’s the shortest definition of “instant”.
Unlike crépe batter, dosa batter is not poured onto a hot, buttered pan and spread by tilting; it is placed in the center of a dry pan and quickly distributed by doing a circular motion with a flat base of a ladle, leaving small ridges in a spiral. Ghee, butter or oil is sprinkled on the top and sides of the pancake during the frying. Like a charm, the crépe releases itself from the pan when it’s cooked. Usually, dosa is not flipped over but filled directly on the pan, and folded in half or rolled like a wrap, and served immediately with chutney, pickles or as a part of a larger meal.
Potato curry is perhaps the most common way to stuff the pancakes; they go well with coconut chutney. But, I find dosa delicious with any other filling, too! Crépes that envelope fresh, savory cheese is one of our favorites. Sometimes, like the day I was photographing for this post, I crumbled them in a salad, like croutons, as an effort to incorporate energy into a low calorie lunch. For me, this type of side-dish is as creative as it gets, and provokes imagination.
Ps. I forgot to mention in the recipe that it makes 10 to 15 pieces, depending on the size.