Dosa, a recipe
I received a bilingual Indian cookbook about seven years ago, English and Japanese — I ordered every single ingredient.
Two years later I was attending cooking school in India. The first day I had to study in the library, which was packed with Asian, European, African, and Indian faces — every one of them were Indian — their culinary traditions as varied and in harmony with each other.
In southern India Dosa is ubiquitous and varied like the faces in India. It is made with urad dal and rice, or semolina, or with an egg or without. It is stuffed, dipped, rolled, made long, made round, made thick. It is breakfast, lunch, a snack, dinner and even a sweet. The only ingredient which is consistent is the name, but most everyone can agree that Dosa can be defined as urad dal and rice ground up, fermented, and cooked on a hot surface.
I wanted to learn how to make Dosa, but Chef refused, “They are made at home, for home.”
The apartment I lived in had a cook, a teen from a lower caste in West Bengal. He spoke his local dialect and some Hindi. He made me breakfast every morning and every morning I helped him. He taught me how to make idli — and dosa.
Step one: Find a ratio of beans to rice, and chose a rice.
I’ve come to like the texture from 1 cup beans to 3 cups uncooked rice. Dosa can be made with only beans and upwards to 1:5 beans:rice. The more rice, the fluffier the end product. I’ve met people who insist dosa is made from parboiled, jasmine, short grain and sometimes long. Myself, I’ve even made it with brown rice.
In Indian cuisine there are dosa and dosa like foods which are made from chickpeas, garam, mung beans, lentils. Dosa in this post uses urad dal because it will ferment producing something akin to a sourdough flavor. Use the technique to experiment at home.
Step two: Soak your beans and rice.
Urad dal has a bacteria which will ferment, so it is imperative that you do not wash the beans if you want the ferment. You can soak the beans and rice together, or apart, but soak at least 8 hours.
Some say that soaking apart makes the dosa lighter, but with what machine you grind, how long you soak, how thick the batter is, and how much rice you use will all will contribute to how to how light your dosas are.
Step three: Grind the beans and rice together.
Drain the beans and rice. For a faster ferment, use all or some of the water to grind the beans and rice. My young friend used a blender, I use a Vitamix, some homes use a Mixi, the shops in India use a stone or industrial wet grinder. The consistency should be like pancake batter. You can always add water to your batter later, so it’s okay if your batter is thick.
Step four: To ferment or not.
Fermenting will give the dosa a sourdough like flavour and lighten the batter. Simply cover and leave in a warm place overnight. If the ferment doesn’t take, put a ladle of the batter in a bowl and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of whole fenugreek seeds, which share the same bacteria as the urad dal. Pour the cup of batter back into the main batter through a strainer (to remove the seeds), stir and cover. If your home is too cold, try placing the batter in the oven or near a heater.
Alternatively, you can add citrus acid and baking soda — plop, plop, fizz, fizz. It’s a short cut some people use, but only just before you use the batter.
Step five: Making dosa.
Indian peoples use a tava, restaurants a wide griddle. You can use a flat surface like a crepe or fry pan. Add a ladle of the mixture and spread across as thin as you can. When it turns brown, flip it. A skilled person can make paper thin dosa.
You can also ladle onto a pan and with the ladle make concentric circles pushing the batter outwards into a disk. You can make it as thick as you like. You could also use a crepe spatula to spread the batter.
To personalise Dosa think about these questions during each step:
Step one: Soaking.
- Do I need a complete protein? Adjust my ratio of beans to rice.
- What texture do I want? Lighter and crispier, more rice. Softer? More beans.
Step two: Liquify the beans and rice.
- Do I want a thin dosa? More water.
- Do I want a thick dosa? Less water.
Steps three and four: Grinding and fermenting.
- Do I want it sour? Ferment it over night. Keep the fermented batter in the fridge for a week, it will keep indefinity and the sourness will icrease.
- I don’t want to ferment, but I want a sour flavor. Add yogurt or whey in place of some of the water when blending and don’t ferment.
- I want it light, but without the ferment. Use fruit salts (it’s sold as an antacid, but used in the kitchen for an artificial ferment).
- I want it to be flavorful: Add one or two tablespoons of a different kind of bean when grinding. Or, mix in a powdered bean or spice just before using.
Step five: Cook
- I want it soft. Fry without oil on a non-stick surface.
- I want it thin: Use a spatula to spread it out.
- I want more texture:. After you pour the batter sprinkle on minced herbs like cilantro or minced onions or chilies.
- I want it crispier, use oil or ghee when you fry.
This post is long and detailed, which might dissuade you from making Dosa. That is my error in trying to be thorough. My larger point is that the formula and technique for Dosa can be modified. By going into detail I hope you do try Dosa in the usual Indian style — it is wonderful, full of flavour, and healthy. But I also hope you experiment in your kitchens, especially if you’re vegetarian. Myself, I’ve used dosa to make “crepe layer cakes”, faux-enchiladas, psudo-blitzes, and mock-quesidillas.