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Giving character to the ‘masala dosa’

The pancake that set a million mouths watering. File photo

The pancake that set a million mouths watering. File photo  

The national snack needs patient cooking; the way you eat it reveals you

The masala dosa. What enterprising cook was it who crafted it? The masala dosa. If one were to accept the results of a poll (circa 2010), it is the undisputed national snack. The masala dosa. I wouldn’t want to stay long where it is not made properly. The masala dosa. The full moon reminds me of an m.dosa in the making, whose “dark side” is steadily turning golden-brown.

My earliest memory (circa 1973) of the treat is gawping at it as a six-year-old at a popular eatery in Bangalore, as Steven Spielberg would at a UFO in his backyard. But my quest to make the perfect m.dosa began as I noticed cooks habitually perform that ritual of “sweeping” the sizzling steam off the hot tava with a besom immediately after raking up the dosa. This wasn’t done after making rotis; so it couldn’t be to “clean” the tava.

That ritual, it emerged, is the key to preparing the perfect m.dosa. (And, as in the case of many rituals, I’d be surprised if even the cooks have any clue as to why they do it.)

Certain things (like tea or desserts) must be made well or not at all. While shortcomings in preparing standard items such as sambar, roti and dal can be rectified using some additives, foods such as m.dosa must be made well because they are consumed for comfort. So they must look attractive, smell appetising and taste terrific.

After sufficient experimentation I have discovered that to make that perfect m.dosa at home, controlling the flame is vital. Never pour batter on a hot or cold tava; wait for it to be warm. While in Karnataka, adding some sugar (for browning) to well-fermented batter (for softness) helps.

Daub the batter on a lukewarm tava and raise the flame to high. A while after bubbles break through the batter and the base begins to brown, turn down the flame completely for several seconds. This helps the dosa base become crisp without charring it, and leave the top soft. Drizzle oil or ghee before slapping some palya on it. Fiddling the flame is required because domestic flames are not large and because the domestic tava is much thinner than the commercial variety, which is about an inch. Thick, large, all-iron commercial tavas retain a lot more heat than their domestic counterparts.

And here is why the sizzling water and all the “sweeping” between dosas help make a good hotel m.dosa: the sizzling water not only de-greases but also cools the surface of the tava, preparing (that is, making it lukewarm) it for the next dosa. A warm or lukewarm tava helps the batter spread easily and will not allow the formation of air pockets that will never brown.

All this seems arduous requiring several minutes of cooking time per dosa, but the efforts are worth it. I have found that the palya tastes better if whole potatoes are boiled in brine. Crush them by hand, and use minimum onions and mustard for the palya .

M.dosa is not a meal but a comfort food and is best enjoyed for comfort. So it makes a happy but poor breakfast item. And I am convinced how one eats it can reveal one’s upbringing. Woe unto those who use both hands! Use the thumb and two fingers of the dominant hand to gently pare the m.dosa and apply chutney on each morsel with the other. Eating, I prefer the “caterpillar style”, nipping off bits from one corner, gradually increasing the size of the morsel, saving most of the palya for that one last large bolus churning in ghee. Don’t rush, relish.

M.dosa is comfort food. But where’s the comfort in consuming it in the most uncomfortable position? One must also refrain from consuming it frequently. Rarity preserves passion. The masala dosa. Well, Bertrand Russell saab: Can the conquest of happiness be complete without it?

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 9:01:01 AM |

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