Thursday, November 27, 2014

Masala Dose (Dosa) - a food coma inducing vegetarian thanksgiving brunch

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
Thornton Wilder

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers celebrating the day!

Long ago when the immigrants declared peace with the natives and broke bread together, started this celebration of oneness, giving thanks and saying grace together. The holiday itself has morphed into a cacophony of retail business with stores opening at the wee hours of dawn on Friday luring customers with promises of never before 'low prices'. This year, it is getting pushed to Thursday evenings, I personally think that is a shame! After all this research shows, these black Friday (now Thursday) sales do not really lift the profit margins that much anyways. All I would say is 'consumerism ' is good for the economy but take some time to be together with family, friends and live in the joy of the moment before you rush towards the malls :-)

Like always, the month of November brings in not only a nip into the air but also the festive jingles. Twinkling lights, bouquets of cheerful Poinsettia make their way into the living rooms. I like to slow down a little bit and count my blessings, they are many and I am extremely grateful for the life that I have. 
Many years ago, we landed here as the proverbial 'new immigrants' leaving behind the known and the familiar trying to make a life with the unknown and unfamiliar, hoping every step of the way the decisions made would stand us strong for years to come with dreams in our young eyes. Every day was a new experience, a learning as we got immersed in the new culture, people, practices. Now after all these years, it is a second home. While my home far away comes in dreams every night and I yearn for the family back home, I also love waking up every morning and take in what my second home has to offer. Things could have gone differently but for the grace of the power I believe in and for that I am thankful. I am grateful for all the rich experiences I have had in these many years of being alive, I am grateful for the love I have received from people near & far away. Thanksgiving is a special time for me to slip slightly into the years gone by as I count the happy moments and look forward to continued joy going forward. 

Being a vegetarian in a very 'meat' friendly environment is not an easy task. While vegetarianism and veganism have become mainstream now, 15 or so years back, it was unheard of and I would have spent many a get together dinners munching on just the leafy greens and filling my stomach (and waistline and then some..) with the desserts as I feared touching any of the main courses doused in non-plant based fats and showcasing different varieties of meat. I am not intolerant to non vegetarian, I have many good friends that love only non vegetarian meals, BH enjoys his share of non vegetarian too. I just have not felt a need to try or taste the stuff. 
We attended a Thanksgiving dinner once back in Michigan as part of a spiritual group and I was taken in with the ingenuity of the hostess who served major concepts of Thanksgiving in a completely vegetarian way. DD loved it too and that is how our Thanksgiving brunches have been now for many year. Did I say brunch? yep since we skip breakfast, the little girl declared holiday which means she gets up when she feels like and we go directly to our meals which is somewhere in between BF & lunch. Our main course is always potato stuffed dosas, sided with different combinations of chutneys and dips, some form of sweet potatoes (baked, roasted etc). I didn't make the corn bread this time. This meal is a great alternative if you are a vegetarian. I have had some of my friends make stuffed paranthas as another variation. 

We had this masala dosa, chutney & sambar and feeling as stuffed as a turkey (err,, tofurky may be) and as I type this away, I hear the gentle snore from a fully satiated and overstuffed BH who declared that a siesta was the best thing that could happen immediately after eating such delicious dosas and true to his words, went to lie down right afterwards :-). This is a carb heavy meal and oh I am thankful for the starches and carbohydrates in my life, they make me happieee. 
Masala dose (as we call it in Kannada) does not need any introductions to most people. They have been popularized world over by the numerous Udipi cafes, Saravanabhava restuarants and other South Indian joints. Masala dosas are so versatile that people have gotten creative and stuffed them with stuff such as broccoli, cauliflower, paneer etc :-) which goes to show that it is nothing but a concept that you can tailor to suit your taste. I come from the small town of Mysore which valiantly tries to hold on to the traditional roots (sometimes good and sometimes not so good) and you normally don't see stuffings other than the "forever in demand" potato masala in my kitchen. 

If you were to see any restaurant menu card worth its salt dosa, it will have a plain masala dosa and a Mysore masala dosa. What is unique about the Mysore masala dosa is the fiery red chutney spread liberally on the inside of the dosa before placing the potato masala. A bite of that is a step closer to heaven for spice lovers like me. Oh, btw, I have seen many masala dosa posts in the blogs which call out for a crispy thin layer of dosa. For us from Mysore, masala dose is always thick, pulpy while being crispy as it is doused with oil/ghee. 
This post is already growing long in length and I will reserve all my chatter about dosas for another post and another day but in parting, I will say this - it is very hard to get the even, golden brown color on the dosas at home. If you are trying to mimic the restaurant served dosa at home, be prepared to use inordinate (and unhealthy) amounts of oil. Another reason for that golden hue is the controlled and uniformly distributed heat in a big kitchen. However you can get a better tasting dosa at home by using quality ingredients and following a few tips. Use an iron skillet or tawa for making dosas, it not only cooks evenly but also adds to the flavor. I swear by my cast iron pans, they grow increasingly better as they age and you keep working at the seasoning of the pan. I do not make dosas on non-stick pans anymore. Contrary to popular belief, the cast iron pans are not oil guzzlers, if you follow good seasoning practices and keep the pan in good condition. And once you have a good seasoned pan, do not ever part with it :-).

So here is a recipe of good masala dose with its accompaniments, Be prepared to spend some time reading the recipe below as it has many details and tips to making a good dose at home especially if you are a newbie to this South Indian delicacy. There are many different proportions to a good dosa batter and here is mine that yields a perfectly fool proof and yummylicious dose every time. 
Let us start by making the dosa batter, this is a 2 day process so planning is crucial. You need to ferment the batter for atleast 8-10 hours or more if the weather is cold. I do not favor the short cut practices of adding cooking soda or baking powder to the batter without fermenting it, somethings in life are best when done in a certain way. So, 

What do you need for the dose hittu or dosa batter? 
1 cup urad dal (I use whole white urad)
1/4 cup toor dal
1/4 cup chana dal
1/4 cup thick poha (avalakki or beaten rice)
3 cups rice (I use sona masoori) 
1 Tsp fenugreek seeds
1 Tsp salt
1/2 Tsp sugar

How do you make dosa batter? 
  • Take all ingredients listed except for salt & sugar in a big vessel, wash them a couple of times and soak them in double the quantity of water for 4-5 hours. 
  • Drain the water and grind the ingredients together into a smooth paste (use water as needed to make a thick batter of dropping consistency).
  • Mix once, cover and keep aside in a warm corner of the kitchen to ferment for 8-10 hours or until it starts forming a nice convex layer in top with a few bubbles. 
  • Before making dosas, add salt & sugar and mix the batter, adjust with water to get a nice consistency to spread on the pan. 
What do you need to make potato palya? 
4 medium sized potatoes
1 big onion 
1 inch piece ginger
2-3 green chilies
1 Tsp chana dal (for crunch, omit if you do not like it or use cashew nuts)
few curry leaves
1 Tbsp oil
1 Tsp mustard
1 Tsp cumin 
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/8 Tsp Asafoetida
1/4 Tsp turmeric powder
Optional ingredients: 
few sprigs of cilantro chopped
few cashew nuts
fistful of cooked green peas
How do you make potato palya? 
  • Wash, cut into half and cook the potatoes until soft. 
  • Let cool, peel the skin off and mash into a smooth paste. 
  • Remove ends of the green chilies, slit them vertically in half (or chop them into pieces if you prefer)
  • Wash, peel and grate ginger. 
  • Heat a pan, add oil, when the oil is hot, add asafoetida, chana dal, mustard and cumin. 
  • Let the seeds pop, add cashews, green peas if using, add slit green chilies and curry leaves. 
  • After 30 secs, add thinly chopped onion, salt, turmeric powder and mix it well. 
  • Let cook on medium heat until onions turn limp. 
  • Add mashed potatoes, mix and if too dry add a couple of spoons of water. 
  • Taste test for salt and adjust. 
  • Add chopped cilantro on top and keep aside until ready to use. 
  • You can add a spoon of lemon/lime juice if you like the tart taste, do it after the stove is switched off.
What do you need to make red chutney? 
1/4 cup of roasted gram dal (Kadle in kannada, putnala pappu in Telugu)
1 medium onion (use the red onions as they are milder in flavor)
1 small tomato
4-5 dry red chilies soaked in warm water for 10 mins
1/2 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
Optional 
1-2 cloves of garlic (I do not use it)
How to make the red, fiery chutney? 
  • Drain the water from the chilies, take all the ingredients and blend them into a smooth paste. 
  • Do not use water to grind, juice from the tomato and wetness of the onion will be sufficient. 
  • Onions and tomatoes add flavor and also give volume to this chutney, if you want use a little bit more of roasted gram dal. 
  • This is a spicy chutney, use red chilies based on your heat tolerance. 
What do you need to make white/green chutney? 
1 cup coconut
1/2 up roasted gram dal
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1 clove garlic (omit if you don't like)
3-5 green chilies (adjust to taste)
fistful of fresh cilantro (if you want slightly green chutney, else omit this)
water to grind
How to make white chutney?
  • Take all the ingredients in a blender and blend it into a smooth paste of desired consistency. We like it a little thinner so the dosas can be easily dipped into them. 
I made some quick fix sambar to go with the meal today, recipe in another post. 

Bringing them all together: 
  • Heat a flat (preferably cast iron) pan on medium heat. 
  • Sprinkle a few drops of water and it should immediately sizzle up. 
  • Mix the batter, take a ladle full of batter, pour it in the center of the pan and with a swift motion, spread it circularly all around the pan. 
  • Drop spoonfuls of the red chutney in different places around the dosa (do not try to spread it at this time), add a few drops of oil all around, cover (yes cover it and see the notes below) and let cook for 45secs - a min. 
  • Take the cover off, the batter would be cooked with no hint of rawness, now with a flat spatula, spread the red chutney all around the dosa. 
  • Check to see if the bottom has attained a golden brown or any desired color, put a big heap of the potato palya in the center of the dosa, fold it and remove it onto a plate. 
  • Serve it with the white/green chutney and sambar. 
  • Repeat the above steps for as many dosas as you need, eat them hot. 
Notes: 
  • Masala dose batter is slightly thicker than regular dosas to achieve that pulpy, crispy layer. 
  • A wet grinder works best to make good idli, dosa batters but a strong motored mixer/blender would work well too, do it in batches if you need to. 
  • We like the potato palya to be soft but not watery, use good, mature potatoes with less starch. 
  • I always make extra potato palya as it seems to somehow reduce in quantity from the time I started on it and by the time I am ready to make dosas. A very believable disappearing act :-)
  • Keep a watch on the heat and the tawa temperature, these vary from kitchen to kitchen, you will become an expert over time. 
  • It is important to cool the pan slightly down when you pour the batter or else, it will get stuck in lumps on a very hot tawa and also cooks unevenly - remember how all the restaurant chefs spray about a cup of water between batches of dosas and spread it all around with a broom :-), the idea is to control the temperature. 
  • Masala dosa is never cooked on both sides, it dries up the final product. You need to cook the dosa enough so it is neither burnt nor under cooked. Covering the dosa as soon as it is spread helps to get a nicely cooked dosa where you can easily spread the red chutney and also ensures the bottom browns up in the process. 
  • Adding a half spoon of sugar to the batter helps get a nice hue to the cooked dosa. 
  • I use a cut onion to spread oil in between dosas on the pan, this gives a nice color to the dosa too.