It would not be an empty boast to say that if a South Indian were marooned on a desert island, he/she would probably find something to make dosa out of. What I mean to say is that the popular perception that a dosa is “a fermented crepe made out of rice and black lentil” is like saying that India is made up of 28 states and 7 union territories. It is also an insulting definition because it undermines the inventiveness of the average dosa cook. In fact, I like to believe that the astonishingly vast variety of dosas has been partly sired by boredom at the prospect of eating yet another of the aforementioned fermented crepe for yet another breakfast/tiffin.
Naturally, the question is - how many kinds of dosas are there? In order to answer that question, I will have to demolish a couple of popular dosa myths.
The first is that a dosa is the collusion of rice with black gram or urad dal. Well, first of all, historically speaking, that was not how the dosa started off. According to food historian, K T Achaya, the first mention of ‘tosai’ is in Tamil Sangam literature, dating back to the 6th century AD and at the time, it was probably made only out of rice. (A close relative of the dosa, the “appam”, first mentioned a hundred years earlier in the Perumpanuru, one of the ten anthologies in the collection of Sangam poetry called Pathu Pattu, is made out of fermented rice batter, but the fermenting agents range from toddy to yeast, never urad dal.) And even more interestingly, the “dhosaka” mentioned in Manasollasa, the Chalukyan king Someswara’s massive encyclopedia about daily life in 12th century Karnataka, was made only of dals - no rice at all!
So, it is true that the most common variety of dosa eaten (and sold) today is made out of a fermented batter of rice and urad dal. But it is said that there are 330 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon and while it may be rash to claim that there is a variety of dosa to appease each of those 330 milion divinities, let’s just say that there are enough to keep our mortal palates perpetually tickled and titillated. And many of these dosas stray off the fermented-rice-and-urad-dal path. The most well known examples are pesarattu and adai – favourite alternative dosas in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. While rice is present in both of them, it really plays a sidekick, the centre-stage occupied a whole melange of dals, all the way from green gram (moong) to channa dal.
But to illustrate my point more vehemently, let me tell you about a lesser known yet far more interesting family of dosas that hails from coastal Karnataka.
Family name (Tulu)- balchat
Most members of this family are made out of rice, but what makes them different is that the grain is ground together with a vegetable. Which could be a selection of greens, though not boring old spinach but a whole host of local, seasonal greens like malabar spinach and colocasia (arvi) leaves and some so local that they don’t even have a name in English! Or then, it could be one of the two vegetables that are my favourites balchat additions – cucumber and white pumpkin. For two reasons. First, both vegetables lend a very distinctive but delicate flavour to the dosas. But they also colour them a beautiful pale, pista-green shade, guaranteed to elicit a very gratifying gust of “oohs” and “aahs” when presented to the uninitiated.
Did I say “ground together”? Actually, that is not always so, because many balchat aficionados prefer to chop the vegetable very fine and then add it to the rice batter rather than grind it along with the rice. The result is that you get these little crunchy bits of the veggie in every mouthful of dosa – absolutely delightful!
And then, though not a member of the balchat clan, there is the dosa with a fruit in it! As any jackfruit lover will tell you, during jackfruit season there is such a glorious glut of the fruit that it inspires cooks to look for hundreds of different ways to use it all up. And one way is to make a dosa out of it – by grinding ripe jackfruit together with grated coconut and rice. The resulting faintly golden, slightly sweet, sumptuously “jackfruity” dosa is so delicious that it requires nothing but a splash of melted ghee to accompany it!
These are traditional recipes and sadly, an endangered species. Which is ironic because there are two things that make these dosas particularly relevant for modern day living. First of all, the presence of vegetables or fruit makes them very healthy and loads them with nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Now, that brings me to the second dosa myth. That a dosa is a laborious time-consuming dish, requiring hours of preparation needed - to soak the grain and dal and ferment the batter. Once again, while this is true of the rice-and-urad variety, there are enough examples that are otherwise. The pesarattu, the adai and entire balchat family of dosas are quickies, made from batters that used almost immediately after they are ground. In fact, one member of the balchat family is what I would call the true instant dosa. A version of it, called godhumai dosa, is a popular emergency snack especially in Tamil Nadu and is made out of wheat flour. But the balchat cooks have bettered on this, going straight to the actual grain. And the recipe is brilliantly simple and quick - wheat grain is washed, then ground into dosa-batter consistency and made into dosas and within a matter of minutes, you have a gorgeous, high-fibre, low-cal meal!
But, as far as I am concerned, the star among these no-ferment quickie dosas comes - once again - from coastal Karnataka.
Beautifully thin and soft with lacey edges, this is a diva among dosas, because though the batter is easy to prepare, it is difficult to make. You see, “neer” means water in Kannada and Tulu and the reason why it is so christened is because unlike most dosa batters, this batter is very thin, almost water like in consistency, achieved by grinding the rice very, very fine and adding plenty of water to it. Therefore, to make this dosa, you cannot place a dollop of the batter in the centre of the tava and spread it outwards in circular motions as you would for other dosas – the “wateriness” of the batter doesn’t permit it. Instead you have to pour the batter around the edge of the tava and allow it to run down evenly to the centre to form a dosa. But to achieve that ‘makhmali’ thinness that is the hallmark of a good neer dosa, the tava has to be just the right temperature, the batter just the right consistency and you have to pour at just the right speed! But if you get all these elements right, the result is magic – a delicate, exquisitely soft, almost translucent white dosa that would put any roomali roti to shame! (Incidentally, this dosa doesn’t need a drop of oil for cooking, just a well-greased tava.)
I could go on because the list is long even though I know only of the dosas that came out of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. But my point is - there are dosas and dosas. Made out of almost anything that is willing to allow itself to become a dosa. Some fried to a crisp, golden brown-ness (the Kannada term is “gari-gari”, a wonderfully onomatopic term, don’t you think?), others gently steamed to a soft, fluffy whiteness. Some thin as paper (and as fragile), some thick as quilts (and as soft). Some slightly tart, others slightly sweet and still other tarted up with everything from chopped onions and tomatoes to cheese. (One version of the appam has an egg broken on top of it as it cooks – a fabulous Indian interpretation to “sunny-side up”.) Some are stuffed (one famous Mumbai street-food version is stuffed with Chinese fried noodles!), some lined with fiery chutneys and powders and some others prefer to go plain, but accompanied by anything from the ubiquitous coconut chutney to chicken curry. But whatever the denomination of the dosa, there is one thing that all of them have in common.
The chemistry explanation is that any kind of batter - including the non-fermented kind - has a certain amount of air incorporated into it as a result of the grinding and the mixing actions. So, when the dosa batter is spread on a hot tava, the heat causes this air in the batter to expand and escape, leaving behind little holes all over the dosa.
But that’s the boring “science-y” explanation.
In Karnataka, we have a different take on these holes and a very deeply philosophical one at that. You see, we’ve figured that the holes have been put there to remind us that however much it may seem otherwise, nobody’s life (and figure) is perfect. Not even Bill Gates. Or Aishwarya Rai. It’s a reminder that keeps envy at bay and makes it a little easier to put up with those dratted Jones. So, the next time we hear about how the rich-bungalow-in-Beverly-Hills-NRI-aunt’s daughter ran away with the Korean cook and how Sambumurthy mama’s perfect son-in-law was caught with his hand in the till, we nod happily, cluck our tongues and crow to each other, “Yellaru mane dosey toothave”.
Literal translation – the dosa in everyone’s house has holes in it.
Figurative translation – Nobody life is perfect.
It was an indispensable – and I would go so far as to say sacrosanct - part of the South Indian kitchen (and still is in many places) till the new-fangled non-stick cookware usurped its place. The dosa tava. (In Kannada, it is called the “dosey kallu”, “kallu” meaning stone and probably referring to the fact that traditionally, dosas were also cooked on stoneware.)
On the face of it, it looks like any iron tava, except that the surface feels like lightly greased silk to the touch. But this is no ordinary tava. Reserved exclusively for making dosas, the surface of this tava has non-stick properties that modern teflon-types would kill for. And that is achieved by what I call dosa-tapasya - years and years of using the same tava to make dosas and not washing the tava surface afterwards with a detergent or a scouring powder. The result is that the tava surface gets slowly coated by layer upon thinnest layer of oil and becomes like the politician’s hide – you can make nothing stick on it!