Why the seemingly boring 'dosa' calms your columnist and puts a spring in his step
Many people tell me that cooking calms their nerves. I hear that it’s therapeutic, that the contemplative stirring of a slow-cooked dal or kheema simultaneously slows their pulse and heightens their passion.
I have never quite understood this romanticization of cooking.
Cooking, to me, is work, and something that is now a part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth or putting on clothes.
I cook because I like to eat, and I like what I cook.
There is, however, one thing that makes me contemplative and passionate about cooking: a dosa, which, of course, I do not regard as just a dosa.
Ever since I learnt to lay out a dosa in my teens, the act of making one has always got my utmost attention. You cannot but help pay close attention.
Creating a dosa starts with what I call the dollop, the heavy, liquidy dosa batter that you gather in a deep, round-bottomed ladle. It is important to get the dollop right—too much and you could have too much batter on your dosa pan, which must be hot but not overly so because then the dosa may stick and blacken and disintegrate into strips of semi-cooked dosa.
Once the dollop is on the pan, I have to admit that it is most satisfying to swirl the batter across the pan in ever-growing concentric circles. However often I make a dosa—I make at least five every day—there is always an “ah" moment when it spreads out confidently and sits there sizzling and steaming.
The dosas at our home are made somewhat trickier by the fact that they have no oil.
That’s right, no oil, not a drop.
If that wasn’t healthy enough, I am glad to inform you that over the last year we have abandoned dosa batter made from white, polished rice.
Now, you all know that while a white-rice dosa looks good and sizzles nicely, especially encircled with oil or ghee, it is barely nutritious. Age and health issues have always got the Halarnkars thinking deeply about nutrition and related issues, but we were not willing to compromise on taste.
Our dosa journey has been quite a roller-coaster ride.
For decades, we made dosas the conventional way—grinding three portions of white rice with one portion of skinned urad dal and letting it ferment overnight. As children, we ran to the kitchen every morning to see if the batter had risen. Our eagerness was on account of the batter’s penchant for overflowing sometimes on to the counter—easy grist for a boy’s easily amused mind.
When my wife and I were working in Mumbai a decade ago, we discovered “Matunga dosa batter". It was ready to use and gave us many years of easy, satisfying dosas with none of the effort of the grinding and rising.
At some point, Matunga—and its lookalikes in Bengaluru—became unsatisfying. As the years rolled on, we started focusing on what was in the batter, and we soon realized it was none too healthy, despite the fact that our dosas, even then, were free of oil. There were preservatives and probably more salt than was good for us.
So we went back to home-made batter. This was now easier because we lived close to my parents, from whom we often filched batter. But this year we realized that white rice could no longer play the prominent role it had in our lives. At lunch and dinner, we had moved to red or brown unpolished rice, rich with nutrients, but all this effort was being negated by the heaps of white-rice dosa batter.
Our first attempt at healthy dosa batter came from the wife’s suggestion of using ragi, the finger millet native to Karnataka, where we live. We found a premixed, packaged ragi dosa batter in Bengaluru stores and enthusiastically started using it. The dosas were a bit of an adjustment. Not only did they take longer to cook, their texture was different, heavier and coarser, and, sometimes, they needed to be carefully leveraged from the edges off the pan.
A word about the pan. It’s important to have a good, non-stick dosa pan. If it warps or starts to lose its coating, throw it away and buy a new one. Non-stick pans leak toxins when warped or damaged, so it’s best to be cautious.
The wife, who is more of a stickler than I am in matters of health, soon realized the packaged ragi dosa perhaps only offered an illusion of health. The problem with packaged goods in general is that they contain high levels of sodium, or salt, a major factor in Indian heart-unfriendly living.
Our dosa dilemmas were finally solved when we went back to making home-made batter; only now we use either brown rice (Royal Sonamasuri hand-pounded brown rice) or ragi flour. A bit of white rice goes into our batter to keep it soft, but as our recipe below indicates, it really is minuscule. The crispness comes from methi (fenugreek) seeds.
So, every morning I have my little contemplative moment, assessing the dollop, dropping it correctly in the pan, swirling and sizzling. I cover the pan and let it steam.
The dosa emerges a rich brown, crisp on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. When I gently persuade the dosa to leave the safe confines of its pan and peel it off the edges, I understand that there is, after all, some romanticism to the process of cooking.
Brown rice or ‘ragi’ flour ‘dosa’ batter
Serves enough dosas for a four-member family for three days.
2 and half glasses Sonamasuri brown rice or ragi flour
1 glass urad dal
1 tbsp methi seeds (for crispness)
Half cup white rice (for softness)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
In a food processor, grind all the ingredients into a smooth batter, adding water if necessary. Cover and store in a cool place overnight or for 6 hours before use.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking And Other Dubious Adventures.