Several years ago I went on an adolescent pilgrimage around India. I saw the Taj Mahal's white marble lit up by a full moon. I saw ghats smoking in the early dawn at the edge of the Ganges River. I wandered among huge sizzling pots of golden "savories" in the market of Allahabad. But it wasn't until I reached the small towns of southern India that I felt I had found what I was looking for. If that immense blue sky and hot sunlight, those pungent aromas and intense colors could all be wrapped up in one food, it would result in masala dosais .
Masala dosais are very thin, golden, crisp pancakes, at least two feet long, rolled up tightly and filled with spicy potato curry. They are customarily served with sambhar , a hot exotic vegetable soup, and coconut chutney, an even hotter, fragrant condiment.
Stumbling out of dusty buses after 36-hour rides, or clambering down from the luggage rack in a train compartment, I headed for the nearest grand old vegetarian hotel or small government hostel, ordered masala dosais , and was revived.
Masala dosais are most pleasurably eaten in a setting reminiscent of southern India: a bare concrete floor underfoot, a ceiling fan circling slowly overhead, windows open to sunlight playing on palm fronds or bougainvillea (geraniums or azaleas will do), a table set with the most functional items (banana leaf, stainless steel or paper plates -- no forks, knives or spoons) and, finally, some small reminder of a divine presence on a whitewashed wall, a framed technicolor print of the Hindu god, Ganesh, a tiny carved crucifix or even an autographed photograph of a famous movie star. Cleanliness and simplicity are the essential ingredients.
In Washington I was astonished one day when I happened upon southern India just off Connecticut Avenue. "Paru's Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, Delicious Spicy Foods and a Variety of Pancakes" read the hand-painted red lettering on the glass window at 2010 S St. NW. A friendly young Indian woman, Chandra Kesavan, presided behind the counter in the small, austere eatery, supervising the daily creation of masala dosais and some 15 other South Indian "delights."
When she learned of my eagerness to cook masala dosais , she assured me that despite the fact they followed no written recipes, it would be very simple. She had grown up in Pondicherry, near Madras, and learned by watching her mother. I could come watch in her kitchen for as long as I needed. Kesavan smiled at the thought of her mother's uproarious laughter over writing recipes down on little cards: "Recipes are handed down from generation to generation but never written down. My mother knows hundreds of things and I know at least half of them.
"South India is where authentic, traditional Hindu culture remains strongest, because it has not been touched by invasions like the North," she said, by way of explanation. "We have tried to put an emphasis on the spiritual here at Paru's," she added. "Our cooking is purely vegetarian and we leave onion and garlic out of at least half our curries because meditators don't like it."
A minute later she giggled. "Because of the spiciness, people want to eat so much here.I'm afraid it's not very spiritual."
Buying and cooking South Indian food, I soon learned, is as much an adventure as eating it. Many of the ingredients were utterly strange and exotic to me, and can be bought only at a special Indian grocery store. Allow a full day for the creation of a South Indian meal.
One final note: You will notice that every recipe listed below requires different kinds of dhal; dhal is a broad term for a great variety of lentils, dried peas and bean, all very rich in proteins. The four kinds of dhal that are used most often in South Indian cooking are: urad dhal; moong dhal; thoor dhal , and channa dhal . Every Indian grocery store should carry them and can identify them for you. Good luck. MASALA DOSAIS (8 servings) Dosais 2 cups long-grain white rice 1 cup urad dhal Salt to taste Corn oil for frying Masala (Filling): 2 pounds white Idaho potatoes (peeled, steam-cooked, roughly mashed) 1 to 1 1/2 cups corn oil 2 tablespoons mustard seed 4 tablespoons whole green chiles, finely chopped 4 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely chopped 2 tablespoons channa dhal 2/3 pound onions, coarsely chopped 1 teaspoon turmeric powder 1 teaspoon chili powder
The dosa batter must be prepared the day before, but cooking the pancakes should be done right before serving.
Soak the rice and the dhal separately in water for 4 to 5 hours. (You might need to add water while they're soaking since the dhal , in particular, absorbs water rather quickly.) Using either a blender or a food processor, grind the rice and the dhal separately to make thick pastes, very smooth and fine. Add water if necessary. Mix them together well and add salt. Put the mixture in a large pot (the mixture will expand) and let it ferment overnight at room temperature.
To prepare the masala , prepare the potatoes and set them aside. Put about 3/4 cup of oil in a heavy skillet and fry the mustard seed until it pops. Add the chiles, ginger and dhal, and then saute the onions with them.When the onions are well-cooked, add the turmeric and chili powder, more oil, and then the potatoes. Mix the ingredients together well with a fork, but leave the mixture rough. Set aside.
When you are ready to cook the dosais , add water to the batter as needed to make it smooth and somewhat loose. Prepare the griddle by placing it over a high heat, making sure the heat is as evenly distributed as possible. Spread a thin layer of corn oil over the cooking surface. Take about three tablespoons of the batter (or a soup ladle full) and quickly spread it in a long oval on the griddle. Quickly drip more corn oil on the top of the dosa . Using a spatula, lift the edges of the dosa all around to keep it from sticking. If it is thin enough and the griddle hot enough, it will be cooked sufficiently in a minute or two, and does not need to be flipped over.
Put a generous scoop of the filling (again a soup ladle full) on the left side of the pancake. With spatulas in both hands, carefully fold the left side of the pancake over and then the right to make a neat container around the filling. Ideally, the dosais will be long, thin and light as air. SAMBHARl (8 servings) 1 cup thoor dhal or masoor dhal 1 1/2 tablespoons tamarind paste 2 to 3 cups assorted vegetables, cut into large pieces (any of the following will do: pearl onions, fresh asparagus, carrots, radishes, eggplant, bell peppers, pumpkin, cauliflower, broccoli) 2 tomatoes 2 to 4 teaspoons sambhar powder (the more the hotter) 1 to 2 tablespoons flour (if necessary) 1 tablespoon corn oil 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed 1 teaspoon curry leaves 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida (also called "hing") 1 teaspoon urad dhal Salt
Cover the cup of dhal with 2 inches of water in a saucepan and gently boil it until it's soft and well cooked (20 to 30 minutes). Set aside.
Put two cups of water in another large saucepan. Add tamarind paste and salt to taste. Put in all the vegetables (including the tomatoes) and the sambhar powder and simmer the vegetables until they are cooked through. The vegetable broth should become thick; but add a tablespoon or two of flour if it's not thick enough.
Put 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet. Briefly saute the mustard seed, the curry leaves, asafoetida and urad dhal .
Just before serving, mix the cooked dhal with the vegetables, then sprinkle the mustard seed mixture on top. COCONUT CHUTNEY 1/4 cup channa dhal 1 tablespoon corn oil 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes 6 to 10 whole green chiles (depending on how hot you want it) 1 teaspoon cumin seed 1 teaspoon mustard seed 1/2 teaspoon curry leaves 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
Briefly saute the dhal in the corn oil; be careful not to burn it. Combine it with all the other ingredients in a blender. Mix them until the coconut flakes are dissolved, but leave the mixture somewhat rough. Serve with masala dosais and sambhar . ADAI (GRANDMA'S GOODIE) 1 cup long-grain white rice 3 tablespoons moong dhal 3 tablespoons urad dhal 3 tablespoons channa dhal 3 tablespoons thoor dhal 3 tablespoons buckwheat 1 teapsoon black pepper 1 teaspoon dried red chiles 1 tablespoon unsweetened coconut flakes Salt to taste Corn oil for frying
Combine all the ingredients except oil and soak them in water for 2 hours.
Put them all in a blender or food processor. Add water if necessary and mix to a thick, rough consistency. The batter can be used right away or stored for a few days in the refrigerator.
Put a generous amount of corn oil in a skillet or on a cast iron griddle. When hot, pour 4 to 5 tablespoons of the batter out to make a big round, thick pancake. When one side is crisp, flip it over and cook the other side. Top with butter and brown sugar, or for a main course, serve with sambhar and coconut chutney.