Kerala, India, is called God's Own Country because of its natural beauty: lush, languid waterways, endless green rice patties, and white sand beaches that drop into the Arabian Sea. The pace is slower than most places, the people nicer, and the feeling tropical. It is a cherished respite from the dizzy chaos of North India.
I had my own divine experience on these backwaters, not just absorbing the scenery, but also experiencing the region's cuisine. I ate hearty crepes called dosas for breakfast and lunch, lapped up coconut fish curries that were more like soups than stews, and slurped lassis blended with fresh mango. In the two months I spent in South India I never got tired of breakfast on a banana leaf, lunch on a tin tray, and dinner seated on the floor.
Now, living in San Francisco, I miss India. A lot. Two South Indian restaurants (Dosa and Udupi Palace) sufficed for awhile, but I needed to get back to the countryside. So I hunted around and found a class on Meetup called “Delectable Dosa: The Art of Making South Indian Crepes,” which I attended with five other hungry students one rainy evening in San Francisco. Our tour guide, Nalini Mehta, a chef and Aruveydic guru, shared her dosa-making tips.
Dosas, plate-size rice-flour flatbreads as common as pizzas, are a staple in India. They're filled with savory vegetables and meats and eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Kerala.
Making dosas is a multistep or multi-day process (depending on humidity). It's all about the batter: Basmati rice is soaked and then turned into a paste. A sturdy little Cuisinart pulsed and paused, pulsed and paused, as we took turns testing the consistency. ("No granules!") With each pause, we added a touch of water and looked for telltale bubbles that meant our batter was ready.
Onto fermentation and rising. To keep the class moving, Nalini had prepared, Martha Stewart-style, another batch of batter. It had fermented, risen, and was ready for urad dal (white lentils). We rinsed and blended the lentils before adding them to the master batter.
Masala dosa filling is a savory, spicy, all around delectable mash of potatoes, onions, turmeric, and saffron. Our class helped chop and prepare the ingredients — de-skinning onions, peeling boiled potatoes, and mincing cilantro (aka coriander). This is what I remember from my India trip: the filling I scooped and stuffed into my mouth lunch after lunch in Hot Kitchen in Alleppey.
Potatoes are the heart of the filling. After peeling, we gently crushed them between clean fingers into a bowl. Then we turned the half mashed potatoes into a hot wok. We toasted the spices on the stove with oil before adding to the potato mixture. The smell was incredible.
Nalini also showed the class how to make the perfect dosa condiment: coconut chutney. When I tasted it, I immediately returned to Kerala. The chutney is deceptively easy to make with coconut, yogurt, and chili peppers blended in a Magic Bullet.
The second filling was a contemporary take on the traditional masala. "I learned this from a Caucasian," Nalini said proudly. In New York, she had been trained in dosa making by the head chef at Hampton Chutney, a fusion eatery in downtown Manhattan where dosas are filled with modern combinations (Indian grandmothers everywhere are grumbling). The caramelized onions, portobello mushrooms, cojack cheese, and arugula did not have the pizazz of the masala spices, but it was a nice complement to the classic dosa.
Nalini set aside two griddles — a Presto I recognized from making pancakes with my mom, and a crepe pan that heats up on the range.
There's a fine balance to getting the griddle the perfect temperature to accept the batter without burning it. The edges need to be crisp and the crepe needs to be cooked through the center. Nalini dripped water on the griddle and said that the water "must dance, not smoke."
Then she checked the consistencey of the batter: soupy, but not drippy, thinner than pancake batter, and smooth. She used a flat-bottomed ladle to scoop the batter gently onto the surface and started to spread it slowly to the edges of the pan. It cooked through on one side, and bubbles appeared when it was ready.
And then we ate.
Ingredients: - 1 c. hulled/split black gram ( white urad dal) - 3 c. long-grain basmati rice - 1 tsp. fenugreek seeds - ghee - salt to taste
Preparation: 1. Rinse rice and dal thoroughly. Soak separately in water for about four to fie hours or overnight. Rinse and soak fenugreek seed separately or with urad dal as well.
2. Grind dal and fenugreek together, and rice separately for at least 15- 20 minutes until it becomes a fine paste. Add minimum amount of water. Grinding is key to excellent dosa batter. Grind rice and dal separately first and then grind both together for another 5 minutes. Make sure to give the food processor short brakes so that it does not over heat.
3. Set aside overnight (minimum six hours) for fermentation. Add salt to batter and mix well.
4. On a hot griddle or in a flat non stick frying pan or griddle, pour a ladle full of the batter onto the center of the pan. Spread, moving quickly from the inside out in a circular motion, making it into a thin crepe.
5. Drizzle a little ghee on the dosa and lower the heat. Add filling (potatoes, veggies, beans, cheese) soon after spreading the batter onto the pan and oiling the dosa surface. Let it cook for two to three minutes before folding dosa in quarters.
6. When it turns golden brown, take off the pan and serve hot.
FIND IT Nalini Mehta teaches Route to India cooking classes in San Francisco and leads culinary tours to Kerala, India.