Who first decided to douse a dosa — one that was made not just from rice but also maida — in butter? Neha Mujumdar goes on a tasting tour while searching for an answer.
“You made the right choice, by coming in the afternoon... sikkapatte rushu, saayankala (the evenings are very crowded).” That is the rickshaw driver in Davangere, commending my choice to visit Sri Guru Kottureshwara Benne Dose Hotel at 2 pm, just after the lunch crowd and before the snack-time rush.
Is there another place he recommends? No. “There is no place better than this.”
Davangere lends its name to a famously rich variety of dosa; indeed, several eateries in Bangalore invoke the central Karnataka town to lend credibility to their butter-rich dosas; “camps” devoted to the specific Davangere Benne Dose spring up every so often. But once you hit the central Karnataka town itself, you’ll find that Davangere, the centre of the eponymous district, isn’t chock-full with over-commercialised dosa joints (like the big-city ones which have varieties like paneer dosa, cheese dosa, chinese dosa). Here, there are some hubs, each with a scattering of tiny establishments. And these hotels, with their typically short menus, manage to provide dosa nirvana in a way no newfangled combination can.
“Yen ide?” (What’s available?)
That is a stupid question to ask in an establishment labelled “Benne Dose Hotel”. But I ask anyway, to find out what the other offerings are.
“Benne dose, khali dose.” (Butter dosa, empty dosa).
“Ondu single benne dose.” (One single butter dosa).
It’s the same story at all the restaurants I visit. And everywhere, this word — single — is crucial. If you let the staff get away with ordering you a “plate”, you will be served not one but two dosas — hardly instructive if one is on a tasting tour, of course.
On IB Road, in quick succession, sit a bewildering multitude of restaurants, all named some version of Sagar Benne Dose Hotel. These establishments offer unabashed celebrations of grease. The fare here is palatable enough if what you’re indulging in is a deliberate exercise in gluttony — and artery-clogging, of course. The fluffy, flabby dosas served in these tiny rooms are so buttered that the piece of newspaper they give you to wipe your hands just will not do.
It is at the Sri Guru Kottureshwara Benne Dose Hotel that I first realise that maybe, just maybe, two dosas wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Credit for that possibility goes not to an expanded appetite, but to the lightness and restraint in the benne dose served here.
First of all, they’ve made a choice about texture: dosas here tend to be crisp and thin rather than fluffy, a proposition that suited me eminently. The single dosa that arrives, minutes after I order, is chocolate-brown, paper-thin. Its surface is marked by attractively large holes, the result of perhaps a liberal hand with the soda (as in baking; soda causes a release of carbon dioxide in the shape of bubbles, allowing the batter to expand).
And of course, there’s the butter. Perhaps the deciding factor is that butter is present more in aroma and spirit rather than in the actual dosa itself, which doesn’t suffer from an overdose. The dosa is so flavourful that you don’t need too much of the accompanying chutney and palya, except as contrast.
The crisp, thin dosa is gone in minutes.
A process standardised to almost mechanical routine is responsible for the sublimity of this particular dosa. Revanasiddiah, who has run the hotel for nearly 20 years, tells me that the process begins daily at 8.30 a.m. Seventy to 80 kgs of rice (IR 64 variety, he says) are soaked in water. Late at night, at 10.30 p.m., they grind and mix in maida, mandakki (puffed rice), urad dal and salt.
Next morning, they add soda and water, and run test batches to get the perfect consistency for the batter. A hot surface is the meeting point for butter and batter. Mornings are also when they make the accompaniments — boiled, mashed potatoes, and a coconut chutney, fiery with green chillies. Curiously, the chutney here is boiled, not fried with a tempering as is typical. It’s a simple mix of coconut, green chillies, salt, and just a pinch of cardamom. “We don’t use oil.” he says.
But as expert as the town may be in the art of the dosa, getting to the origin of the Davangere Benne Dose is surprisingly difficult. Why is it so famous? Who first decided to douse a dosa — one that was made not just from rice but also maida — in butter?
M.R. Vijayashankar, who runs Shree Sagar Benne Dose hotel, says it’s impossible to trace the dosa’s history. “Even though I make them, I don’t know where it came from,” laughs Revanasiddiah. “I only remember that my maternal uncles used to buy butter and add it to their dosas.” In the nearby village where he grew up, his uncles decided that they wouldn’t get many customers in the village, and moved to Davangere town. Revanasiddiah would accompany his mother when she would visit them, and decided, as an adult, to set up a hotel.
The open flame at his hotel is roaring now, with nearly six or seven butter-dotted dosas cooking. “I don’t count the number of dosas made per day.” he says. “I can’t.”
HOW IT’S MADE
One kg rice
1/4 kg urad dal
2 tablespoons maida
1/2 kg puffed rice
Soak rice for 10 to 12 hours; grind, add puffed rice, maida, urad dal and salt, and grind again. Allow it to sit overnight. In the morning, add soda and water to desired consistency. Cook in butter, on a cast-iron pan.