Tom’s Tales: Homemade Masala Dosa

We love breakfast. We love going out to breakfast. We love cooking breakfast. We love fancy breakfast. We love low brow breakfast. We love just the two of us breakfast. We love social breakfast. We love breakfast. Since we’ve been in Bangalore, we’ve done ok for ourselves. Our first breakfast out, we went to Koshy’s, a Bangalore institution, where we were introduced to appam and broth, which is a cousin to one of our new favorites, idli. We went to a super fancy brunch at Leela Palace. We’ve taken advantage of pastries from Cafe Noir that are delivered once every week to school. But truly, so far, our favorite is a South Indian traditional breakfast, masala dosa served with coconut chutney. We’ve had it in two different places: Lakshmi Natraja Refreshments, a small amazing place we were introduced to on our market tour; and Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, another Bangalore institution. Both times, we were absolutely blown away.

Also, I love cooking. One of the balances I have been struggling to strike here in Bangalore is how to cook frequently enough to be satisfied. The reasons I don’t cook as much as I’d like are all things I do not want to change. I get home a lot later than I do in the states, so I have less time during the week. Melissa being more often at home does most of the cooking when it needs to be done. Our cook (which still feels weird to say) Bharti makes incredible meals two days every week, often enough for left overs for both lunches and one more dinner. On the weekends, we like going out and finding new favorite places. That doesn’t change the fact that I want to find more excuses to cook.

Today is Melissa’s birthday. As I was thinking about how I wasn’t going to be able to spoil her in the same ways I spoil her back in the states, I thought maybe I’d combine my love of spoiling her with my need to cook more: I would tackle masala dosas! As I talked about my plans with everyone around me, I got very consistent responses:  “Oo, really? You ought to have a back up plan on hand when in case it doesn’t work out quite right. And plan for it to take a lot more time than you think.” Turns out, both pieces were sage advise. Most people make dosa from a mix (made often by MTR, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms). That’s because it takes a full day to day-and-a-half to make them. Also, there are only three elements to the dish — the dosa, the seasoned potato stuffing, and the coconut chutney — but all three require their own version of tricky prep work.

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Coconut, both chopped (left) and grated (right).

I actually started this little adventure on Wednesday. I had this very plausible vision of me buying a coconut and spending hours trying to get into it, so I planned to ask Bharti to show me how to open a coconut when she was here cooking. It turns out, it just takes brute force. She also showed me how to peal it and described how to grate it.

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Soaking rice (top) and dal/fenugreek (bottom)

First, though, on Saturday morning, I got the dosa batter going. Dosa is a crepe made of fermented rice and lentils. The first step is straight forward: rinse and soak the rice and lentils for six hours. The lentils get soaked along with fenugreek. By the way, where cooks in the states basically have two types of lentils to choose from, green and brown (and red if you’re getting really fancy), here we have I-don’t-know-how-many types of lentils. In this step, we’re using urad dal.

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The completed stuffing.

Once I got that started, I started in on prepping the other stuff. Being incapable of simply following a recipe, I decided to make one key adaptation: add cauliflower to the stuffing. One of the commenters on the recipe suggested it, and the birthday girl loves cauliflower AND comments on online recipes. Since we had a capsicum (bell pepper for you Yanks) that wasn’t getting any younger, I decided to roast it and the cauliflower and throw them all in. I was going to just prep the vegetables for the stuffing, but I kept hearing the voices of all of those friends: “Plan for it to take a lot more time than you think”. I threw together the sauce on Saturday while Melissa was getting adorned with henna.

Side note: We got a fun new toy: an immersion blender that also serves as a mini food processor and whisk. So fun.

After going on our adventure for the day (trying out the Metro, scouting out the train station, buying me some fancy clothes), we got home in time to grind the rice and dal. I’m not 100% sure I did it right. It looked good, and I was pleased with it at the time, and it was kind of fun, but it seemed to be grittier than I pictured. In any case, I set the batter on the counter to ferment overnight. It’s supposed to get bubbly, which it kind of did, but it took quite a bit longer than I expected. Fortunately, we weren’t hungry until about noon after our feast at The Royal Afghan last night, so it had time to puff up nicely.

This morning I was left with two tasks: make the coconut chutney and put it all together. The coconut chutney was as close to a mess as this little experiment produced. It didn’t grind like I pictured, then I added more water than I should have, and in the end it wasn’t as spicy and delicious as we had in the two restaurants (or that Bharti made for us on a third occasion). It took me a while to find the right tool to grind it with (it turns out, it’s the spice grinder, just like the recipe says).  I assumed that all of the flavor was going to come from the temper-the-chutney stage. I don’t know if I didn’t use enough spice or what, but it just didn’t have a ton of flavor. So, other than being a strange, gritty consistency and a bland flavor, it was delicious!

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The frying dosa.

Making the dosas themselves was its own little adventure. Maybe the dough was too thick, but it didn’t spread as thin as I pictured right away. I kind of got the hang of it eventually, but it was rough. The dosas themselves were a little bland — I’m thinking I should have added more salt.

The whole dish was saved by the stuffing; it was good.  The dosas served as a reasonable vehicle for the stuffing, so the bland was forgivable. We will definitely be working on this. Some notes on what we’re going to do better next time:  I seeded and de-ribbed the chiles. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. When adding so many vegetables, I probably should have added more spices. We’ll try to grind the rice and the dal in the spice grinder like we finally did the chutney. The dosas themselves might have needed more salt. One can apparently tinker with the ratios of dal to rice in the dosa batter, so we might increase the amount of dal just to make it more interesting.

I have dreams of going home and making a feast of masala dosa breakfast for our people who share our love of delicious breakfast. Today’s attempt was not to that level of deliciousness yet.

Citing my sources (not according to MLA format, students):

Masala Dosa recipe from NY Times

Coconut Chutney recipe from Veg Recipes of India

Cooking Experiment: Aloo Gobi

Part of our mission in moving to India is to master Indian cooking. In time, we’ll find people to observe so we can learn the finer points, but in the meantime, we’re just diving in! We bought heaps of spices and used the recipe from Veg Recipes of India to attempt Aloo Gobi. I do not in any way blame this very fine recipe for the food we created.

We were out of tomatoes, which was mistake number one, and decided to go ahead anyway. We also do not yet have measuring cups or spoons so can’t be certain that our ratios were quite right. And the cashew cream was pretty darn lumpy with a few fully or partially intact cashews in the mix, owing to our use of a spice grinder to make it. We also wonder what would happen if we ground the spices instead of treated them like aromatics simmering in the gravy.

The resulting dish had a really unappetizing color, was strangely lumpy, and was surprisingly bland despite all of the spices that went into it.

We will persevere in our Aloo Gobi efforts with the following adjustments:

  • use all ingredients on the list
  • buy a small food processor for the making of cashew cream and other chutneys and sauces
  • buy measuring implements so we can better follow recipes
  • be brave with the spices

On the upside, the frozen flaky paratha was delicious!