Dosai, a south Indian contribution to world gastronomy

The word tosai or dosai is mentioned in tamil literature from the Sangam period dated about 6th century AD1. However, dosai seems to have become more popularly known as dosa both in India and in the rest of the world. Regardless of the term, dosai may have originated in southern India due to the predominance of rice cultivation.

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Dosai is a crêpe-like dish made from a fermented batter of finely ground rice, black gram, and some fennel seeds. Below, is a method to make dosai:

Parboiled rice

Raw rice

Black gram (vigna mungo or urad dhal): skinned

Fenugreek seeds

Salt

Water

Oil (any neutral tasting oil or clarified butter)

Use the proportion three parts parboiled rice to one part raw rice to one part black gram to about half tablespoon fenugreek seeds. Wash the rice several times and soak in plenty of water using a large vessel. Repeat this process with the black gram and fennel seeds in a separate vessel. Soak for at least eight hours at room temperature. There will be a visible change in the size of the dry ingredients as they rehydrate. Using a stone-on-stone wet grinder (or a blender with blades), grind the black gram and fennel seeds with enough water to make a thick and smooth batter. Next, grind the rice to also form a thick and smooth batter. Mix the two batters and add salt. To ferment, fill a large glass bowl with batter to about the halfway mark, cover with an oven-safe plate, and then place in a 200˚F pre-heated but switched-off oven with the oven light turned-on for about eight to twelve hours or until the batter has doubled in volume, and appears light and filled with many tiny bubbles. Using a nonstick or cast iron pan that is lightly greased with oil, and is at low heat, pour enough batter and spread into a thin layer. Add a little oil to the edges of the spread batter and increase heat. Depending on the thickness of the dosai, a lid might be used to cover the pan to cook the top, thicker parts of the dosai that is not in direct contact with the heat. When the edges of the dosai are crisp and begin to lift-off the pan surface, using a thin spatula, gently lift and roll the dosai onto a plate.

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The stone-on-stone grinder is the ideal way to get a smooth and fluffy dosai batter from the hydrated yet hard ingredients. Modern technology has allowed for this process to be automated in the form of an electric wet-grinder, and to an extent the electric blade-based blender. However, before the advent of technology, and actually even to this day in low socio-economic Indian households, it is quite common to hand-grind dosai batter using a large stone-on-stone mortar and pestle. If the effort to hand grind the batter was remarkable, the frequency with which it was done, was even more remarkable.

The process of fermenting the dosai batter is natural and is mostly mediated by bacteria present in ambient air. It does not involve the addition of any leavening agent like yeast or any starter cultures. The temperature and humidity have to be adequate for efficient growth and multiplication of the fermentation-causing microbes, and hence the warmth of an oven helps in parts of the world where room air is not warm and humid.  The ease of spreading the batter on a warm pan, the many tiny holes that appear and the slightly sour taste in the cooked dosai, are a direct result of good fermentation.

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A women sitting on the ground and hand-grinding dosai batter (sadly, men infrequently contributed to this task of strength, endurance and diligence), that she then uses to make thin dosai on a cast iron pan, is an iconic symbol of south Indian kitchens for more reasons than one.

I grew-up eating a lot of dosai, and wanted to do so even more. It was one of my top choices. However, over the last eighteen years, after I moved from India to America, and started to cook, I have barely tried making dosai, and have only periodically eaten them at Indian restaurants. The craving for it has always been there when I thought about it or spoke about it with family and friends, but I guess I had just stopped thinking and talking about it often.

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To the person who now makes me think of dosai more often than I can remember, Happy Birthday!

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Reference:

1. Indian food: a historical companion by KT Achaya

10 thoughts on “Dosai, a south Indian contribution to world gastronomy

  1. nirmala

    Nice blog about the indian version of savoury crepe. Dosa is very popular particularly in south indian households. It is served for breakfast,lunch and dinner and makes a sumptuous meal..
    It is served with sambar a lentil based gravy,chutney made with coconut base,chillies and fried gram, finely ground to a paste and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves.

    Reading the blog reminded me of Deepavali, the festival of lights celebrated at home when my mother would prepare mutton kurma as an accompaniment. The whole family would sit together and enjoy the delicious cooking of my mother.She has passed on but the tradition continues........

    .

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you. And yes, the accompaniments to the dosai clearly elevate the eating experience. Since childhood, I've particularly liked the non-vegetarian dishes that accompanied dosais at home. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to tasting your dosai with its accompaniments.

      Reply
  2. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Ms.Aruna Vedula:
    Thanks for the memories. I grew up eating dosas. I feel the key to a good, crispy dosa is the iron tava/griddle. Any other kind does not quite cut it. The one we had at home was solid- you rarely washed it because you did not want to ruin the seasoning. That tava churned out the most deliciously crispy dosa. As a college going girl I did not know how to cook but I could make awesome dosas. I would be the designated dosa maker when my Mom's friends came over for brunch. I loved the high praise I got from all the Aunty ji's!!

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you, Aruna. I agree that the cast iron tava/griddle is key. However, based on a few experiments with different surface materials and differing heat, I think there are alternatives. Then again, I don't have your long experience, I only recently started to tinker with recipes and materials for dosais. Perhaps, I will taste your dosai someday and we could talk about the process of making them.

      Reply
  3. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Murali Gokki:

    Nice blog! Bala,

    Some ovens also have a "bread leavening setting" where it hold the oven at low temperature for a long duration of time. From what we have tried, 85F for 10-12 hrs produces the most fluffy batter.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thanks, Murali. The bread leavening setting would be convenient, like a lab incubator almost. I don't have that setting but I will remember your tip about 85˚F for 10-12 hours.

      Reply
  4. ravi sankar

    The article definitely makes me want to indulge in having dosais with my favorite accompaniment Paya. Nice pics of the process and the final article also.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you. Paya* as an accompaniment to dosai sounds very nice.

      *To those who may not have heard the term "paya", it refers to trotters made Indian-style.

      Reply
  5. Sibel Pinto

    Dear Bala, your post brings me delicious memories of dosas we've tasted in South India, what a delice!! I'm also surprised to read that iron gridle is called TAVA as it's the same word in Turkish:) Thanks and best wishes, Sibel

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear Sibel,
      It is very nice to hear about your south Indian dosai memories. And, how wonderful to know that tava means iron griddle in both Tamil and Turkish! The reasons to explore these two cuisines only keep growing!

      Best wishes,
      Bala

      Reply

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