Friday, May 1, 2009

Waiting for Dosa

About a month ago, in the basement of the Hindu temple, a man struck up a small conversation with me. This is unusual, but it’s also true that I don’t often initiate conversations, as A) I’m not terribly good at that anyway, and B) everyone’s usually eating, or waiting for food. Specifically, we’re waiting for dosas.

Dosas are enormous, thin, crispy, savory crepes, made from a batter of rice and very small beans called urad dal. The basic idea is this: you wash and soak the beans and rice for a few hours, grind them together with some water, and then let the mixture ferment for roughly 20 hours. This fermentation process is the key to producing the aforementioned crispiness.

Back to the gentleman who was talking to me: I had just gone through the shared-table ritual of asking, “Do you mind if I sit here?” and he had nodded his assent with a tilt of his head and a smile.

Him: I hope you will enjoy the food.

Me: I always do. It’s the best in town.

Him: Can you make Indian food?

Me: Some of it; simple things like dal, and dry curries.

This conversation got me thinking, not only about why he would ask me that particular question, but why I didn’t cook more Indian food. The dishes I had tried weren’t horrendously difficult, turned out well, and had built my confidence. Why was I resting on my Indian cooking laurels? What made me think something like, say, dosa would be beyond me?

I started searching for recipes, both at home and online. The ones at home all called for rice, which we happen to be very low on right now. But online, I found one calling for rice flour, which I have, so I decided to start with that, on Wednesday night. Thus last night was the night of dosa truth, and let me tell you, it was a bit harsh.

First of all, I don’t have the right pan – dosa pans are huge circular things, flat like crepe pans and curled up at the edges (I assume that’s to help with flipping). Second of all, I had no idea what heat level and amount of oil was best. Even though I was working with non-stick pans, parts of them were definitely not non-stick, and besides, as Mowgli helpfully informed me, oil is essential when cooking dosas.

My batter was also pudding-thick, and seemed too grainy; the recipe I used was not specific about how much water to add. I had used a food processor instead of the rice grinder that would be used in an Indian household, and suspected I hadn’t ground the batter long enough. I hauled the food processor back out, combined some of the batter and some water, let it whiz around for a few minutes, heated up the pan, and ladled a bit of batter in, spreading it around with the back of the ladle.

The question of when and how to flip the thing was vexing, so I abandoned all hope of getting it right the first time and used my memories of pancake-making as a guide. The top got dry and a bit bubbly, and there was some steam coming from underneath, which I had no idea how to interpret. Using a silicone spatula, I worked around the edges and flipped it, let the second side cook for a minute or so, and slid it onto a plate.

I took a small bite. It was undercooked, which I attributed to the batter still being too thick and not able to spread properly. I added more water. And still more. Sadly, a few dosas had to be abandoned. They crumpled when I tried to flip them and their gooey insides stuck together, making them into useless lumps and prompting Mowgli to offer the Indian cooking proverb “the first dosa always sticks.” This would have been reassuring, but I was well beyond the first dosa.

Turning up the heat and adding more oil seemed like good variables to play with, and indeed, that’s when the batter started cooperating. I achieved my goal of making enough dosas for dinner, roughly an hour and a half after I had started. They were only crispy on the edges, and they were not the delightfully thin variety that’s so fun to eat, but as Mowgli had reassured me, there is such a thing as thick dosa, so I’m not worried about that.

There’s some batter left from this batch, so I’m going to try more with it to see if it’s better the next day, like so many things are. I’ll keep you all posted on that, as well as future attempts.


  1. My dear, you make me laugh. I'm impressed at your resolve to figure it out though. Something about being beaten by food is quite Looking forward to future installments on cooking adventures.


  2. oooooh - takes me back to eating dosas standing up at Adagi (Agadi? ask Mowgli...) restaurant in B'lore. I LOVE dosas! I would have loved to try making them with you. My Indian cooking started with the help of Chandru (20y.o.) in the kitchens of CFL along with various mums of the kids along the way. They tried to show me how to make chapatis, and thus I think you were BRAVE to try dosas!!

  3. Thank you for such wonderful
    information.........If you are a Food Lover just
    the way I am......Please check out the blog
    mentioned below, some really yummy
    recipes are out there !!!!.....Check it out m

    sure you'll love it.

  4. Oh my, trouble in Dosa Land.... We love to eat Dosa and Idili on the weekends. I prefer onion chutney while my husband prefers vada curry with his. Next time try soaking Idili rice over night then use a blender(you will break a couple a year) to grind it. (2cups dal for 3 cups rice)Soak the Urad dal for a couple hours and grind it separately. Mix together with a little salt and leave loosely covered on the counter for 24 hrs. Stir and thin as needed for dosa. use thick and undisturbed to make idli. Keep this fermented mix for up to 2 weeks in the fridge. I used a blender for the first 5 years we were married. Bought a grinder and used it for a couple of years. Last trip to Chennai we got a mixie. Much more convenient like a blender.

  5. Hello Lynn, and thanks for the incredibly useful comment. You've cleared up a mystery for me, too -- I wasn't sure if a mixie was a blender or not, and now I know.

    I'll try out your recipe -- maybe for Thanksgiving -- and will probably post about it, so please check back.

    Thanks again for visiting and commenting. I really enjoy hearing from people whose experience is parallel to mine.

  6. The best tool for making dosa or idli batter is an electric stone grinder. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but google and you can find many online stores selling it. Basically, it is a stone grinder [steel vessel that has a stone cutting implement on a stone base] that can be plugged into an electric outlet. It grinds the food instead of cutting it. Quite quick and the taste/consistency is a degree of magnitude better than the steel version. You can sue the same tool to make delicious crepe' and pancake batter as well. Some foodie blogs that may be of use to you:

    Someone blogging about the grinder:

    My fav Indian food blogs

  7. Thanks for the information and links, Quizman! I'll be sure to check those out.


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