Wednesday, 28 October 2020 06:56

Dosa: India’s wholesome fast food obsession

It was time for Sunday breakfast, and I sprinkled a few water droplets onto a hot griddle to check if they would sizzle. Perfect. Quickly, I poured a ladleful of pale batter onto the pan’s centre, gently spiralling it outwards. Then, raising the heat, I added a generous spoonful of ghee (clarified butter) around the newly formed disc, which soon began to rise slightly and curl at the edges. Now it was time to flip it and cook the other side.

The traditional dosai dates back at least two millennia

Although the glistening, golden-brown circle might have looked like a French crepe or a Russian blini, it was neither. It was a dosai, a thin South Indian pancake made from a fermented batter of soaked rice and black gram, a 2,000-year-old dish beloved by millions of Indians that can now be found in almost every part of the planet, from Parry’s Corner in Chennai to Paris’ La Chapelle neighbourhood (also known as “Tamil Town” or “Little Jaffna”).

Dosai is a thin South Indian pancake made from a fermented batter of soaked rice and black gram (Credit: Credit: Anindam Ghosh/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Dosai is a thin South Indian pancake made from a fermented batter of soaked rice and black gram (Credit: Anindam Ghosh/EyeEm/Getty Images)
With no time for admiration, I carefully slid a spatula under the hot pancake and plated it alongside a small heap of idli podi, a spicy lentil-based powder. After making a slight crater in the heap, I filled it with gingelly (sesame) oil and mixed them together. Finally, I tore a piece off the crispy dosai, dabbed it in the mixture and popped it into my mouth, enjoying a pleasant burst of tart and spicy flavours followed by an earthy aftertaste of sesame.

This is how millions of South Indians eat this wholesome and satisfying vegetarian dish every morning, sometimes opting for a side of chutney and sambhar (a tangy lentil-based broth) over the idli podi. However, over time, the dosai – also known as thosai, dose or attlu, depending on the Indian region, and as the anglicised “dosa” around the world – has evolved to include different ingredients and fillings such as spicy potatoes as in the globally ubiquitous masala dosa.

The traditional dosai dates back at least two millennia, being documented in ancient literature and passed down through the generations, with the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka both claiming it as their own. In his book The Story of Our Food, food historian K T Achaya says that King Someshwara III (who ruled parts of the present-day Karnataka state) mentions dosai as “dosaka” in the 12th-Century Sanskrit literary work Manasollasa. However, ancestors of the dosai such as mell adai (a pancake made of lentils and rice) and appam (a rice pancake soaked in coconut milk) were being consumed in the Tamil region much earlier.

“Appam and mell adai do find a mention in Madhuraikanchi, a Sangam age literary work from the 3rd or 4th Century,” said Jayakumar S, a researcher of South Indian history and founder of Courtyard Tours. “But, the actual term “dosai” seems to have been added much later into the lexicon.” He further explained that Senthan Divakaram, an ancient Tamil lexicon (some ascribe it to the 10th Century) attributes dosai to one of the varieties of appam that’s often eaten with the coconut milk on the side.

Despite any debate over who owns the dosai, chefs from the Udupi region in Karnataka were credited with the crispy version we know now somewhere in the 19th Century. Until then, the dosai was more of a soft, fluffy and lacy crepe. And to this day, institutions like MTR Tiffins (opened in 1924) and Vidyarthi Bhavan (opened in 1943) in Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru have been dishing out delectable dosai for decades. By the early 20th Century, however, many Udupi chefs had migrated to larger Indian towns and cities, popularising the dosai – especially the masala dosa – across India as an affordable breakfast item given its humble and widely available ingredients.

In 2003, the Chennai-based Saravana Bhavan chain took things to the next level by opening South Indian restaurants in various countries, starting in Dubai. And the dosai has continued to grow in popularity around the world, mainly due to the large Indian diaspora who regularly devour the dish and its many variations – including US Senator and current vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, whose video of making masala dosa with actress Mindy Kaling took Twitter by storm last November.

The dosai has also recently become trendy in health and wellness circles in India, as it’s considered an indigenous Indian superfood due to the probiotic qualities that come from its fermentation process. The soaked triad of rice, black gram and a few fenugreek seeds (which impart a distinctive nutty flavour and bitter undertones) is ground with some water and then transferred to a vessel to ferment naturally for seven to eight hours. A few spoonfuls of salt are added after grinding to accelerate the fermentation process.

The globally ubiquitous masala dosa is filled with spicy potatoes (Credit: Credit: Nigel Killeen/Getty Images)
The globally ubiquitous masala dosa is filled with spicy potatoes (Credit: Nigel Killeen/Getty Images)
“The final fermented batter, owing to the action of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts, has increased levels of essential amino acids. This aids in the reduction of anti-nutrients (such as phytic acid) and enzyme inhibitors, thus making it an extremely nutritious food to consume,” explained microbiologist Dr Navaneetha T.

The dosai, termed “dosaka” in ancient Ayurveda texts, is also used by Ayurveda experts in bespoke treatment menus. “Dosa and idli [a savoury rice cake made with the same batter as dosai] are part of the diet to treat muscle wasting, constipation and debility,” said Dr Sreelakshmi, a senior wellness consultant in Delhi.

We can dish out almost 70 varieties of dosas at any given time

“Dosa” economics

The rice-lentil combo is so embedded in Indian culture that it has even been used to explain economics.

For most Indians though, dosai is a go-to breakfast food that has evolved into a fast food item to be eaten at just about any time, day and night. Owing to its popularity, affordability of its ingredients and the ease with which the batter ferments in a tropical region like India, dosa outlets can be now found in every corner of the country and beyond.

“Over the years, the batter’s flexibility to be dished out in many variations has aided and lent itself to dosa’s evolution as comfort food,” said chef Thirugnanasambantham K, principal of Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal. And while the dosai is usually eaten plain (sans fillings), food trends, ingredient availability and convenience factors have resulted in many alternative dosai varieties, both filled and non-filled.

Uthappam is a thicker type of dosai made with chopped or sliced vegetables (Credit: Credit: Sanjay Borra/Alamy)
Uthappam is a thicker type of dosai made with chopped or sliced vegetables (Credit: Sanjay Borra/Alamy)
For example, in households across Tamil Nadu, when the fermented batter turns overtly sour from too much fermentation, it gets transformed into uthappam (a thicker dosai with chopped or sliced vegetables); while coconut milk is used instead of black gram in the delicious appam. And new varieties are being created all the time. From Szechuan dosa, hailing from India’s Chinese culinary influence, to the North Indian-inspired paneer butter masala dosa, there is no dearth of dosas churned out by food ventures across India. Even McDonald’s capitalised on this culinary obsession by introducing its McDosa Masala Burger in December 2019.

Brothers Ritesh Bhattad, 31, and Yogesh Bhattad, 33, are second-generation businessmen who have flourished by swirling the humble dosai batter. “We can dish out almost 70 varieties of dosas at any given time,” said Ritesh. “However, our signature RBS dosa [filled with grated paneer and onions mixed with peanut chutney and spices] easily sells close to 5,000 pieces every month.” The duo’s successful family-run fast food and catering enterprise, Ram Barose – Bhattad ki Idli in Hyderabad, has been a hit with college students and office workers, allowing them to open outlets at three more locations across the city.

New varieties of dosai are being created all the time (Credit: Credit: Leisa Tyler/Alamy)
New varieties of dosai are being created all the time (Credit: Leisa Tyler/Alamy)
According to StatEATistics report: The Quarantine Edition, the masala dosa has been the most-ordered vegetarian dish across India during the pandemic. A whopping 331,423 masala dosas have been delivered by India’s food delivery company, Swiggy, since lockdown began in the last week of March. This version of dosai has become synonymous with South Indian cooking around the world, although it wasn’t part of India’s culinary history until the Dutch and Portuguese introduced potatoes to India in the 17th Century.

However, in South India, the dosai remains more sacred than a mere breakfast or fast food item, and forms part of the edible offerings to god categorised as “temple cuisine”, which follows closely guarded recipes and sometimes old temple inscriptions.

Azahagar Kovil temple in Madurai, for example, makes a thick and fluffy dosai spiced with cumin seeds and crushed black pepper that is deep-fried in ghee as a divine offering, which is then eaten by devotees. In the town of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, a dosai recipe is depicted on the walls of Varadaraja Perumal Temple. “We have an interesting 16th-Century inscription on the walls… mentioning the preparation of dosai (both savoury and sweet) during Ekadasi processions [religious events conducted on the 11th day after the full moon, and on the 11th day after the new moon],” said Jayakumar S. “This confirms that dosai has been part of the Indian temple cuisine for a long time.”

Whether made at a temple, on the streets or at home, the dosai in its many variations is a divinely tasting food that is deeply embedded into Indian culture.

In my family, the dosai isn’t just another food; it’s more like an emotion that cannot not replicated – only experienced in the moment. These words of wisdom came from my grandma, who, a few years back, let me in on an age-old secret shared in turn by her grandma: that no two people can swirl a dosai the same way, no matter how much one tries.

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

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