27 June 2016 – Extra Crispy
When I first moved to Bombay, I spent a week sharing a tiny, ill-ventilated one-bedroom apartment with a pair of chain-smoking journalists from Calcutta, friends of a friend of a friend who’d generously offered me a place to crash. Every night, we slept sideways on a queen-sized bed, my feet dangling over the edge, and every morning, to get out of that dim, pungent apartment, I’d walk a block to the dosa stand on the main road. I’d eaten dosas before in New York, and that morning routine, that one familiar thing, helped keep me steady on the ground while my mad, new city spun drunkenly around me.
Dosas (and their fluffy, pancake-like cousins, uttappam) are one of the few South Indian dishes widely known in the U.S., where “Indian food” is usually code for tikka masala (not actually an Indian dish), flavorless saag paneer, or anything made with that befuddling yellow curry powder ubiquitous in American grocery stores, but nowhere to be found on the subcontinent. (Fun fact: “curry” in India pretty much just means any sauce.) In New York, at least, dosas have become relatively commonplace, popularized by the likes of Hampton Chutney Co., the famous dosa guy on Washington Square Park, and the arrival of the huge South Indian chain Sarvana Bhavan.
Usually hawked as Indian crepes, dosas are, to my mind, a superior invention. Crisp, mildly sour, and lighter than air, they’re perfect vehicles for coconut or tomato or onion chutneys, for the soupy South Indian lentil dish known as sambar, or, at the countless roadside stalls in Mumbai, for a staggering array of fillings, from the classic spiced potatoes in your traditional masala dosa, to the buttery mash of vegetables inexplicably named for the South Indian city of Mysore (where they would never dream of shoving this crap in a dosa), to the noodles and chop suey vegetables and Maggi-brand “Chinese sauces” that go into the salty and confounding (try eating noodles with nothing but flatbread as a utensil) but cheerily multi-culti Indo-Chinese mashup known as the Szechuan dosa.
In the course of more than four years living and traveling in India, I ate dosas of every imaginable texture and flavor, many of them much better than what I had at that street stall in my first week in town (some of them, of course, far worse). In Udupi, the temple town famous for its immense free feedings and namesake for many of Mumbai’s dosa joints, I ate a pillowy, cloud-white “bread dosa” (fermented with yogurt) at the home of the jeweler who outfits the temple and its deity. In Mangalore, a city down the coast from Udupi, I feasted on neer dosa, one of my favorite Indian breads, made from a thin rice batter (no dal in this one) that’s poured onto a pan, covered to steam, and comes out thin and slightly stretchy, like a finer, less glutinous cheung fun. In Rameswaram, a fishing village on India’s southeastern coast, I spent a night sleeping under a palm tree on my translator’s roof and in the morning his wife, cooking over a single butane burner in a tiny, unventilated kitchen, made the sourest dosas I’ve ever eaten and served them with a pungent, vinegary, blisteringly spicy mackerel curry—a more virulently flavorful avatar of the dish than I’ve ever encountered.
A good dosa should be ethereally light, glossy, and golden—a wisp of a thing: chips-and-dip for the gods. It’s not quite a coincidence that Mumbai’s dosa joints are collectively referred to as Udupi Hotels: in the Udupi temple, ritual practice revolves around feedings of the diminutive deity, Krishna. One of the dishes he’s served each morning is dosa.
I ate my first really authentic dosa at a Hindu temple on the other side of the world, in the Temple Canteen attached to the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, Queens, where dosas are made only for the mortal clientele. It was 2007, years before I had any inkling that I would eventually spend a significant chunk of my twenties living in India, and long before I’d become seriously interested in Indian cooking. Unlike the menu at Hampton Chutney Co., where I’d tasted my first dosa maybe a year or two earlier, the menu at the Temple Canteen stuck to the most traditional snacks: a range of dosa varieties, idlis (steamed cakes of fermented rice-and-lentil batter), vada (same batter, but flavored with curry leaf and mustard seed and deep-fried), and a range of rice dishes flavored with tamarind or tomato or lemon.
On a recent weekday afternoon, about a month after moving rather suddenly back to the States, I returned to the temple for the first time. There was no Szechuan dosa in sight, but there was a Chinese family in for lunch, a serious cognitive dissonance after more than four years spent living in India where enmity toward China is superseded only by the deep loathing directed toward Pakistan. This was Flushing’s very own brand of cosmopolitanism, as warm a welcome-home gift as I could possibly hope to receive.
The Temple Canteen opened in 1998, over 20 years after the temple’s founding in the late 1970s. “Before we only prepared naivedyam”—food left as offerings for the deities—”but the temple expanded and we were making much more food each day,” explained Mr. GP, an older gentleman who’s worked with the temple (handling, among other things, its PR) for over a decade. “We thought it would be good for the community to have this place. People who come to worship, after they come for food.”
The cooks at the Ganesh Temple in Queens are, for the most part, Brahmins (members of the priestly caste), and have all worked at one point or another in one of the big South Indian temples where free mass meals are an immensely important part of the ritual culture. Because the kitchens where those foods are prepared turn out food for people from all castes as well as for the gods themselves, only Brahmins, the purest in the ancient social hierarchy, can cook there. Mr. GP referred to the head chef at the Temple Canteen only as “Guru,” a lofty honorific reserved for masters and teachers. “It’s not as though he were just working in some restaurant,” GP explained. “You need to know all of the particular procedures. The kitchen must be pure, the food prepared there (at least some of it) fit for gods as well as men.”
The Temple Canteen serves dosas (prepared only for mortals; the gods here, Mr. GP told me, stick to the rice dishes) from morning to night, turning out 2,000 to 3,000 a day on an average weekend. To make the thin white batter, the guru told me, he’ll soak 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of long-grain rice, 4 kilograms (about 9 pounds) ofurad dal (split black lentils), and 4 kilograms of gram dal (a split yellow lentil closely related to the chickpea, not included in most dosa recipes), then grind them together. This will fill one plastic drum, enough for about 1,000 dosas. In the Canteen kitchens, the cooks prepare their batter fresh each morning, while in private homes, where dosas are still almost exclusively a breakfast delicacy, and at India’s best South Indian canteens, the batter is left overnight to ferment.
To cook a dosa, you ladle batter onto a lightly oiled, screaming hot cast iron griddle, or, in the guru’s immaculate kitchen, a short-order flat top. The dosa gets its filling as it cooks—boiled potatoes spiced with curry leaf, mustard seed, onion, and turmeric for the classic masala dosa—or, in the case of the plain, or sada, dosa, a daub of butter and a shake of a mild, chili-based spice mix. When the underside has turned a burnished brown, the cook quickly lifts the sides off the griddle and rolls it into a long glossy tube or a prettily curled cone.
Like the days they so often begin, dosas are endlessly variable. Rava dosa, made from semolina, is crunchy and riddled with holes like something caught in a shoot-out. Ulundu dosa, made entirely from urad dal, is earthy and a tad spongy, thicker than its more traditional cousin. The simple uttappam, made from the same batter as a dosa, is perfect for beginners to make at home—a ladleful of batter left to on the griddle to rise like a pancake.
However they’re made, dosas are universal, popular with poor city laborers, middle class families out for a Sunday brunch—even among the gods. It’s a traditional Indian breakfast eaten by a Chinese family on an unseasonably cold May afternoon in New York. It’s a bizarre fusion dish beloved by young Mumbaikars, some of whom may never leave the crowded island city they call home. And it’s the thin brown sheet of rice batter, griddled brown, that went with me from home to home and back again.