Monday, March 7, 2011

Dosa: Crispy Indian Rice Crepe

As it was ushered to my table, a hush seemed to fall over the room because it was an absolute showstopper.

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect since on this particular night, I was feeling adventurous and had only ordered items from the Mayuri menu that I’d never tried before. So what was this majestic thing floating toward me? I quickly referenced the menu. It was a masala dosa, a thin and crispy rice crepe made from fermented batter and stuffed with curried vegetables. The crepe itself, with its sharp flavor and brittle texture, was reminiscent of toasted parmesan cheese. The filling was comforting and spicy, and the dish was served with a variety of house-made chutneys. From the first bite, I was hooked -- and I knew this was only the beginning.

A dozen years later, my dosa obsession continues. Every chance I get, I try to get little tips, tricks, and recipes from those in the know so that I can make some beloved dosas at home. Sharon Fernandes, owner and creator of Stonehouse 27 products, was kind enough to share her dosa recipe with me. “It’s more technique than recipe,” she admitted. I figured out that may be code for: you probably will fail several times at this, but if you keep at it, you’ll get a feel for it, and eventually, you’ll make something edible.

Sharon Fernandes’s Dosa Batter

1 1/2 cups dosa rice

1/2 cup urad dal - whole (small white lentils)

1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds

Each ingredient gets its own bowl. Soak the rice in three cups of water, the dal in a cup of water, and the fenugreek in enough water to cover. Cover bowls with plastic wrap and leave out on the counter overnight. The next day, grind all ingredients (including the water) in a food processor for at least five minutes. This can be done in batches. Run the mixture through a mesh strainer to get rid of any unblended bits. Place mixture in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow mixture to sit overnight in a warm place so that it starts to ferment. The mixture will rise like a bread dough; that’s how you know it has correctly fermented. At this point, add salt to taste.

It was time to give dosas their due. I stopped an Asian Grocery to collect all of the ingredients from Sharon’s list: dosa rice, urad dal, and fenugreek seeds. I had heard of these things before but had never put them in my shopping cart. I have to admit that while I waited in line, I was really excited to be on my way to making my own dosas. At home, I soaked and blended everything according to Sharon’s instruction. Against my instincts, I left the mixture out on the counter, not in the refrigerator, to ferment, and I waited. When I checked it in the morning, it smelled sour like buttermilk plus warm beer, and it looked bubbly. Perfect! That, my friends, is the smell of success.

Although I had some luck with the batter, cooking my first and second batches was still pure frustration. Most of the crepes stuck to the pan like glue. My wife stole away with the only halfway-good ones while I scraped the alternately charred and undercooked, gloopy bits of batter off of the bottom of the pan. I knew I needed some professional help, so I went to the source.

Feeling full and happy after a few trips to the Mayuri lunch buffet, I struck up a casual conversation about dosas with Mayuri’s owner Krishna Rao Chattu.

“Did you buy a mix?” he asked with a concerned look on his face.

“No, no! I made the batter from scratch,” I told him.

A smile crept across his face. “It’s simple, then,” he explained. “You want a batter that is not too thick and not too thin.” Must add water, I thought, as I nodded taking it all in. “You want the pan to be not too hot and not too cool,” my new dosa guru patiently advised.

He picked up a flat-bottomed ladle from the buffet and said, “Use something like this or a measuring cup to spread the batter thin.” He twirled the ladle around in the air like he was drawing a series of ever widening circles. I get it, I thought. I was ready. With confidence glowing like the sun, I headed back to my kitchen.

This time it not only felt different, it was different. I had made some mistakes, but I had learned from them. So I dove back in: time to soak, grind, ferment, just like before. This time, I strained the batter in order to get out any stubborn bits of rice that refused to blend.

To properly cook dosas, heat a 10-inch stainless steel or cast-iron pan to medium to medium-high heat depending on your particular stovetop. Brush the pan sparingly with ghee or butter. Using a stainless steel measuring cup or flat-bottomed ladle, pour 1/3 cup of dosa batter into the hot pan and spread it thin with your utensil of choice. Wait 4-5 minutes. The dosa will let you know when it is ready. Keep an eye on the top; once it appears dry and the edge has begun to brown, it’s time to make your move. Peel the edge up with a rubber spatula, and then get up under it with a metal spatula. Hold the spatula tight against the surface in order to free the crepe. Fill it with a few spoonfuls of vegetable curry and serve with my apple-mint chutney.

Dosa Filling

3-6 new potatoes, peeled, boiled, and mashed (yielding 3-4 cups)

2 tbsp. ghee (can substitute olive oil or butter if needed)

2 tbsp. hot curry powder

1 jalapeno, finely diced

1 onion, thinly sliced into half-moons

1 carrot, finely diced

1 green pepper, finely diced

1/2 cup water (you may not need all of it, though)

3 tbsp. vinegar

3/4 cup green peas

sea salt

cracked pepper

Peel and boil potatoes until they're soft. Set aside. Melt ghee in a large, heavy pot, and add 2 tbsp. curry and the jalapeno. Cook for 3-4 minutes in order to toast the spices, and then add onion. Add carrot. Cook it for 3-4 minutes or until carrots are tender. Add potatoes, water, green pepper, and vinegar. Stir to incorporate ingredients. Add peas. (At this point, the mixture should be thick and able to stand on its own without being soupy.) Add salt and pepper and set aside to cool.

Apple + Mint Chutney

2 apples (peeled & cut away from the core)

1 bunch of mint (about a cup)

2 green onions, roots removed

1/2 lemon (juiced)

1/2 lime (juiced)

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

pinch of salt

pinch of sugar

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until finely chopped but not too mushy.

After a lot of practice, I finally got my dosas to come out perfectly...well, at least I was proud of them. And I thought they tasted great. With a little experience, some sage advice from Krishna, and Sharon’s perfect recipe, I was not only a dosa admirer, I was now a dosa maker.

This story originally appeared in Edible Memphis.