Whether it's dosa, greens or pappads... the word crisp takes on new connotations south of the Vindhyas.

Is there anything wrong with the word “crisp”? Does it lack something? When applied to anything, does it imply a soggy weakling, a wuss? Not probably, but, definitely, I'm old-fashioned. And that might explain why I abhor the word “crispy”.

From restaurant menus, with “Crispy Fried Lamb” and “Chef's Salad with Crispy Iceberg and Crispy Croutons”, to food reviews, where sometimes the “crispy bacon” adds texture, and at other times “the samosas had a tasty filling but weren't crispy enough”, would not “crisp” suffice?

It's possible that in a few years the OED will include the word, because, as the editors say, they are mere recorders of the English language, as it changes and grows, not sentries, preventing entry. Standing at the gates in their “crispy” uniforms, munching on “crispy” poppadoms.

Fried stuff

But I was in Chennai recently and the food made me reconsider my extreme views. I was staying with Guddi and Anand and their household has a great tradition. Saraswati, their cook and general factotum, does a wonderful thing every morning: she fries a few dozen papads and stores them, cooled, in an airtight box that remains on the ledge of the hatch between kitchen and dining room.

Guddi insists that this isn't normal practice; they only do it when there are house guests. And house guests like me are forced by that box to consume the contents.

Anand is from Andhra, and he explained to this ignorant Northie that these were not mere papads. His sister was consulted and she elaborated. These were appalalu: kandi pappu (of toor or arhar dal), minnapappu (black gram), minapappu-pesarapappu (black and green gram) and biyyam appalalu (rice). And then there were the vadiyaalu: saggubiyam (sago), bombay rava (suji), minapa pindi (black gram flour) and pesara pappu (green gram flour).

These were so variously flavoured and so crisp that a new term could be considered. I like the Hindi “karara”, so krrisp? Karisp?

A wealth of greens

Things which the natives take for granted but I ate them with meals, between meals, as meals. But the appalalu-vadiyalu bit is only part of the story. A local friend asked Guddi what I liked to eat, and she said, quite accurately, “everything”.

I went vegetable shopping and discovered a wealth of keerai, green leafy vegetables; paruppu, pulicha, vendhaya and pasalai keerai. What I know as regular spinach was, in bazaar language, Delhi keerai. These were cooked lightly with dal, or just by themselves, tempered lightly with chana dal, curry patta and mustard seeds. Sometimes Saraswati added finely grated coconut towards the end. Every dish, every meal, was light, delicious and new.

But the best, the most memorable, was a dosa. I think the first dish from south of the Vindhyas that we were exposed to in Delhi was the dosa. Idlis came much later and took some time to be liked. Other cuisines, particularly from Kerala and Karnataka, took even longer, even though now every housewife worth her salt and seasoned cheena chatti makes a mean appam; or at least knows it. So a dosa, memorable?

Breakfast in Chennai was always a major production. I'm used to fruit and cereal, maybe stretching to an egg and toast. To me, who never heats a kadahi, pressure cooker, steamer or tawa before lunch, this was a different league. Every day idlis, dosai, appam or idi appam, and sambhar – which I can live without – and podi – which I've discovered I can't. Each was hot and delicious, and they made it look like it wasn't a big deal. I even had the luxury of choice; I like my dosa slightly soft, where I can smell the fermentation and feel the grainy texture.

Something extraordinary

But one day there was something extraordinary: an egg dosa. Saraswati spread the dosa batter and, when it was beginning to set, cracked an egg on it. She apologised because I'd asked for one sunny side up, but she inadvertently broke the yolk. For which I'll always be grateful because I've never eaten anything remotely as good.

The dosa was large, almost a foot across, with a golden underside. It was ever so slightly spongy. The egg on top had spread to the edges of the dosa, where the white had turned crisp and frilly, so it was hard to tell where the egg ended and the dosa below began. The centre was thick, soft and buttery, the yolk streaks just half set, and the edges lacy, firm and beginning to be chewy. I did see Saraswati sprinkling it with salt and pepper, but what she did secretly was to pour a generous spoonful of golden-yellow ghee on the whole thing. I don't know how she achieved this mix of buttery, melt-in-the-mouth tenderness with the counterpoint of crisp edges. The dosa and egg were distinct yet together: to coin a cliché, a Krispy Kreme union made in heaven.

Fresh podi was made, served (and eaten), but the dosa was so complete in itself that there was really no need for another flavour. I brought back a freshly made bottle of the stuff, and now I eat it with everything, including buttered white bread.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012