Dosa are an ubiquitous item in the universe of South Indian cooking, usually popular for breakfast or a snack called tiffin, they are traditionally made with a naturally fermented batter of rice (preferably parboiled) and white lentils called urad dal. After this baseline there are several variations to the dosa, and these days umpteen modern variations as well. But, for the purposes of a how to let us stick to the basic rice and lentil variation as I make it, and I am sure over time you can explore the other variations. An interesting element to note is that the dosa uses a process of natural sourdough fermentation, something that is healthy and has loads of good bacteria that aids in digestion.
I dabbled in dosa making along with other traditional Indian cooking and got the baseline hang of the dosa, however when my 2-year old (now 10) tried it, it was a very different story altogether, he fell in love with this crispy crunchy crepe. There was something about the little hands mangling bits of crisp dosa while putting it into his mouth, that became part of a bonding ritual and has continued since. Even after a bad week Aadi and I find happiness over eating dosas, both the traditional and fun ways.
And yes over time, the dosa over time became a staple in our house, and over time I have made it my own and we all have our dosa favorites.
Before we move on to the fun part about dosa – the condiments, let us talk a little bit about the essentials that make the dosa. You need a well fermented batter, it is a well risen batter that gives the dosa it’s characteristic slightly sour taste, and the frothy batter allows for a frothy mixture that quickly adheres to the surface. The rest of the process is about the temperature of the pan. At a baseline, when you are guaranteed a nice hot day and a couple of them, soaking the rice and lentils overnight and then grinding them, letting them rest undisturbed for about 8 to 12 hours works. However, here in the northeast of United States, if dosa is a frequent part of your life, with the exception of summer you will need a few other strategies.
So, if you are guaranteed a couple of 80 degree days,
- Soak the rice and lentils separately overnight (about 8-10 hours), grind them separately then mix and place in a large non-reactive container with a tight fitting lid, and leave the batter to ferment either in a warm place such as your oven or sun room for 8 to 12 hours and your should be good.
If you are not sure of the weather, there are various tips and trick, such as the oven pilot light and others, what I do is actually soak the grains for 2 days, this almost kick starts the fermentation process without actually doing so, and I have found that doing this almost always assures me a well fermented batter after about 8 to 12 hours of soaking.
So, before we move onto the actually dosa making process, it is important to mention that you want to cover fillings and condiment such as chutneys. The fun about a dosa is just that, you cannot serve the dosa alone, a traditional dosa filled with a potato filling is called a masala dosa, and is served at bare minimum with chutney and usually a lentil stew called sambhar.
The filling for the dosa is placed in the center of the dosa, before folding as I am showing my young student here, and the condiments are served on the side. This post and idea, is centered around a recent class that I did, and along with the traditional potato (well, I do add kale and carrots to my potato filling), in our household we have a couple of other fillings. Sort of why my kids call the dosa, an Indian taco.
My daughter Deepta, the guacamole addict, likes her dosa with well, guacamole and my son Aadi likes his with tomato and cheese, so we have what we call the Deepta and Aadi dosa, and here are the demo versions from my class. I will tell you that the traditional potato ones were quite popular while most of the children leaned towards the Aadi.
And the secret filling in the house that no-one knows about is the mom, which is essentially a little bit of everything with an egg on top. In case, you have not guessed this is how I use up all the fillings that are left over in bits and pieces.
Well, what I do with the leftovers is make a softer circular dosa, I shall share that with you separately as I do not want to confuse this post. As mentioned the next thing about the dosa is actually making it, the key is to have a nice uniform skillet (I use a cast iron skillet at home) and an electric griddle for classes and demos.
The key elements in actually making the dosa are,
- Make sure you are working with well fermented batter.
Use a heavy bottomed pan that can withstand high heat and keeps the heat uniform, read cast iron skillet.
I keep 2 spoons and a spatula handy, a ladle for pouring, a large spoon for spreading and the spatula for removing the dosa.
I keep a wet moist cloth to clean and maintain the temperatures in between dosas.
Now, while you still have to work with the batter, there is a product in the making that might actually tackle the process of making the dosa for us. This kick starter campaign looks very promising, and the video will offer a great idea of other possibilities of the dosa. Just a disclaimer, I have not tested the prototype, just going by what I see.
Before I move on, I will note with sadness that the class that inspired this post was in Recologie, which is actually closing it’s doors to the public, in fact this class was the very last event. And finally the recipe! Yes, since some of the pictures are from dosa’s made by students you will see some weird shapes.
Dosa or Masala Dosas are a naturally fermented, gluten-free sour dough crepe from South India.
- 2 cups of parboiled rice (use Uncle Ben's parboiled rice or the Idli rice from an Indian store)
- 3/4 cup of split white lentils (urad dal)
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 1.5 teaspoons salt
- Water as needed
- 3 to 4 Yukon Gold potatoes (or any potatoes with lots of character)
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 8-10 curry leaves (optional)
- 1 teaspoon yellow split gram (channa dal)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 medium red onion, finely diced
- 1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- 1 cup of finely chopped kale or spinach
- Soak the rice and lentils in separate containers with 11/2 cups of water in each overnight, at least 12 hours. (See my notes on soaking)
- Add the fenugreek seeds to the white lentils while soaking.
- Place the rice in the blender with the soaking water and any additional water, to grind into a smooth paste, please note this needs to be done with considerable patience, you need to test the mixture with your hands a few times to ensure that you have a smooth texture, a grainy texture will not result in thin crepes.
- Place in a large non reactive container, a stainless steel or plastic container with a lid is perfect, make sure there is enough room to let the batter double, after the addition of the lentils.
- Add the white lentils and fenugreek seeds and also grind to a smooth paste, this needs to be placed into the same batter as the rice and mixed in with the salt. I have been told that mixing it in with your hands assists in the fermentation process, but this is up to you. Add in about 1 more cup of water to get a batter that is the consistency between pancake batter and buttermilk.
- Set this aside in a warm place, note in summer if you have a very cool (air conditioned house), either place this in the sun room) or in an oven with the pilot light on, or some warm place where this can rise undisturbed for at least 12 hours.
- Before you are ready to begin the dosa process, prepare the filling or fillings of your choice.
- Boil the potatoes in their jackets, cool slightly, peel and mash coarsely.
- Heat the oil and add in the mustard seeds and wait until they crackle. Add in the curry leaves if using,
- Add in the split gram seeds and stir well for about a minute. Add in the turmeric and stir well.
- Stir in the onion and ginger and cook for about 5 minutes until well sautéed. Add in the red cayenne pepper and the potato mixture and salt and mix well with a firm hand, cover and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add in the chopped kale or spinach and cook until wilted. Set this mixture aside.
- To make the dosas, you need to heat a heavy bottomed skillet of your choice, I like a cast iron skillet. Test the skillet with a few drops of water, when ready the water should form beads and dance off the surface. Keep a moist cloth to cool the skillet as needed.
- Add a tablespoon of oil to the skillet.
- Stir the batter once to mix, it should be fairly light and frothy. Take a ladleful and pour into the center of the skillet. Spread the batter as thinly as possible using circular or oval movements. This is to spread the batter evenly and smoothly. This needs to be done pretty quickly with an even hand.
- Let the dosa cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, you can add a little extra oil around the edges, I am fairly minimalistic with the oil, resulting in a crisp by somewhat unevenly browned dosa.
- When the dosa is ready, you should be able to remove it from the pan fairly easily, so place the filling in the center, fold over the crepe and serve.
Most of the time for the dosa is in the fermentation, so it needs some planning but not necessarily a lot of hands on work.