Kerala, India is called “God’s Own Country,” and that usually refers to the South Indian natural beauty of the lush, languid waterways, endless green rice patties, and thin white sand beaches that drop harshly into the Arabian Sea. The pace is slower, the people nicer, and the feeling tropical. It is a needed respite from North India’s dizzy chaos and popular vacation spot.
I had my own divine experience on these backwaters, not just in the scenery, but also in the region’s cuisine: hearty crepes, called dosas, for breakfast and lunch; coconut fish curries that were more like soups than stews, and lassis blended with freshly picked mango. There for two months, I never got tired 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. I especially miss the food that I never got sick of, not even after having it every day for two months. Delightfully, San Francisco has two South Indian restaurants: Dosa and Uduppi’s. They sufficed for a while to satisfy my Kerala cuisine fix, but I needed something deeper. For this traveler, I needed an experience with my food to bring me back to that divine countryside. A search on Meetup.com revealed the search results to transport me there.
“The Delectable Dosa: The Art of Making South Indian Crepes” was brought to six hungry students on rainy San Francisco night by RoutetoIndia.com. Our tour guide, Nalini, a chef, Aruveydic guru, and overall lover of Kerala, took her eager and hungry pupils to the south Indian palate. With sweet humor, she shared dosa-making secrets over the course of our three-hour class together.
What are Dosas?
Described by Nalini, they are as common as “pizzas, a staple in India.” These plate-sized rice-flour flatbreads are filled with savory fillings and eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner in Kerala. Admittedly, I have tested this theory. How does one begin to make a dosa? With the perfect batter of course…
The Perfectly Paste-y Batter
Dosa making is a multistep and possibly be a multi-day process (depending on humidity). Nalini shared her first secret to dosa making: the batter must be perfect. In this case, perfection means pulping it into a paste with a powerful mixer. Take washed and soaked Basmati rice and blend, blend, blend.
We had a little mechanical help in the process. The sturdy little Cuisinart pulsed and paused, pulsed and paused as we took turns testing the consistency through our fingers ( “No granules”). We judged how perfectly smooth paste like our batter must be. With each pause, we added just a touch of water and looked for the telltale bubbles that started to appear and show that our batter was approaching the proper consistency.
The batter was judged as perfectly paste-y when there was no chunks, granules, and, well, actually looked like paste. This was just the first step, fermentation and a little rising the next. To keep the class moving, Nalini had prepared, Martha-Stewart-style, another batch of batter. It had fermented, risen, and was ready for the second ingredient of the batter: urad dal or white lentils. We rinsed and repeated blending with the lentils and added that paste to the master paste for the perfect paste-y dosa batter. One cannot live on crepe batter alone; there were two fillings to make, one classic and one more fusion, before the cooking began.
The Masala Filling: Potatoes with the Classic Indian Spices
Savory, spicy and all around delectable, the masala dosa filling is potatoes, onions, and the classic Indian spices that caused European explorers to circumnavigate the globe – tumeric and saffron. Our class helped chop and prepare the ingredients – deskinning onion, peeling boiled potatoes, and mincing cilantro (aka coriander). This is the filling I remember from my trip. This is the filling I scooped and stuff into my mouth lunch after lunch in the Hotel Hot Kitchen in Alleppey.
The potatoes are the heart of the filling and prepared by hand for a contradictory mushy and solid consistency. How that consistency was achieved was another secret of the class: once peeled, gently crush the potatoes between clean fingers in a monster mash style and drop into the bowl.
With ingredients ready and the spices revealed, our class hovered around the wok and sautéed. The mixture of spices came alive on a separate burner – toasted in oil in a special temperance pan – and added to the potato mix.
The mix aromas wafted around and snuck up our noses. I swear I heard drool drops hit the floor. After an hour of hard batter work, we were very ready to fill the dosas with this savory stuffing and begin eating, but could not as the batter was still raw and a second filling had to be made.
The Nouveau Filling
“I learned dosa making from a Caucasian ,“ Nalini confessed proudly. In New York, she had been trained in dosa making by the head chef at Hampton Chutneys, a fusion eatery. Her teacher had been creative with ingredients teaching Nalini how to fill dosas with combinations that would make any Indian grandmother mutter about kids today and lost traditions. Case en pointe was our next filling: caramelized onions, Portobello mushrooms, cojack cheese, and arugula. This mixture lacked the pizzazz of the masala spices, but brought home the crepe part of the dosa with the melted cheese and subtle flavors.
Bringing it All Together
With batter paste-riffic and fillings hot and ready, our class was ready to enter into the final stages of dosa-making, the cooking of the actual crepe. Nalini had set aside two griddles – one Presto one that I knew from making pancakes with my Mom (but admittedly had never seen in India) and a crepe-making pan over the range.
There’s a fine balance of getting the griddle the perfect temperature to accept, but not burn the batter, of crisping the edges up right AND cooking through the center. Nalini dripped water on the griddle and says, “The water must dance, not smoke.” And sure enough, after several temperature adjustments, the water danced and welcomed us as a culinary partner.
Nalini performed another batter check – soupy, but not drippy, thinner than pancake batter, but not separate when pouring. A flat-bottomed ladle is required and the main tool of giving the batter its shape once on the griddle. She scooped the batter gently onto the surface and started to spread it slowly over the area. It cooked through on one side and bubbles appeared when it was ready – similar to making pancakes.
It’s a delicate process to make the perfect dosa, and none of us got to the plate-sized portions found in Kerala. Still the rice flour and lentil dough turned into flat cakes and encased the classic and new mixtures. “My teacher made me make 50 of these before getting one perfect,” Nalini shared as she started. There were many orphans who didn’t make it onto our plate. However, the ones that had were quite welcome. Nalini served the first dosas.
By this time, the class was ready to become eager eaters rather than earnest students. Nalini cut each into bite-sized pieces and the ooh and aahing began again. This time we tasted with our eyes closed, savoring the end of the anticipated enjoyment.
After two rounds, the students got to try our dosa-perfecting hand and separated for this exercise over the two cooking surfaces. I had some holes in my first one and definitely cheated on the second by flipping it over to cook the too-thick middle. Still, when the filling went in, the dosa finished cooking, and I handed it over to the plate, we continued to eat, eat and eat.
The Finishing Touch
While all this chopping and batter beating was going on, Nalini also showed the class how to make the perfect dosa condiment – coconut chutney. My memories of this chutney involve sopping it up on the plate with any available crumb. The chutney is easy to make – compared to the complex batter and multiple step fillings. It’s coconut, yogurt and chili peppers, blended to a fine pulp using the only-seen-on-TV Magic Bullet. I repeated my consumption process with the prepared dosas.
Full and Happy
The class finished with six very satisfied students. We left the open loft with full bellies and satisfied smiles. For me, it was Kerala memories and bringing one of my favorite cuisines to life here in San Francisco. For every student, we took home our full bellies and Nalini’s advice, “We cook what we love so we want to eat what we love.”
Route to India:Nalini’s company and class information.