India, Crisped on a Griddle: Classic Masala Dosa

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: January 28, 2015 17:43 IST

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India, Crisped on a Griddle: Classic Masala Dosa

Pancakes for breakfast, lunch or dinner? By all means, but make mine savory, please. To me, sweet pancakes are dessert. I'm happy with a French buckwheat crepe filled with ham and cheese, or the Vietnamese rice-flour banh xeo with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. But lately I've been crazy for dosas, the heavenly crisp South Indian sourdough pancakes, particularly the classic potato-stuffed masala dosa.



When you order a dosa in a restaurant, the presentation is rather impressive. Cooked on a huge griddle, it is usually more than a foot in diameter before it is curled around its fragrant spicy filling.



At home, a dosa is usually smaller, but certainly no less delicious. It is fairly simple to make, with this caveat: The batter must be fermented overnight for the correct texture and flavor. And, to be truthful, the traditional process is a little bit fussy.



You must first soften rice and urad dal (split husked black lentils) in a bowl of water; that takes four to six hours. Then the rice and dal are ground to a smooth paste with a blender or food processor, or an Indian wet-dry grinder, which comes in handy for other jobs. Finally, the batter is left in a warm place to ferment overnight, eight to 10 hours, until it is bubbling.



It may seem daunting. But consider this: Once the batter is ready, it can be refrigerated and kept for several days, even a week, which means you could eat dosas on a daily basis, or simply get the prep work out of the way well ahead.

If the prospect of grinding scares you, use the more modern method and prepare the batter with rice flour and urad dal flour, which is much easier, but you must still ferment it. There is a kind of shortcut instant-dosa batter that uses baking soda, but the end result is somewhat disappointing for a true dosa fan.



Be prepared to fail with the first few dosas you try (if you have made crepes, you will understand why). It takes some fiddling to get the heat correct. It should not be too hot - it takes a few minutes to achieve the beautiful burnished color you want, so a medium flame is best. Before long you'll be turning out expert dosas.



Serve them with your favorite chutney.



Classic Masala Dosa (Dosa With Potato Filling)



Time: 1 hour, plus 12 to 14 hours' soaking and fermenting



Yield: 8 to 10 servings



For the dosa batter:



2 cups short-grain rice



1/2 cup urad dal (split husked black lentils)



1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds



1/2 teaspoon salt



Vegetable oil, for frying



For the potato filling:



3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil



1 teaspoon mustard seeds



1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds



2 small dried hot red peppers



1 medium onion, diced



1/2 teaspoon salt



1/2 teaspoon turmeric



Pinch of asafetida



1 tablespoon grated ginger



6 to 8 curry leaves



4 garlic cloves, minced



2 small green chilies, finely chopped



1 1/2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, boiled, peeled and cubed



1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems



1. Make the dosa batter: Put rice in a bowl, rinse well and cover with 4 cups cold water. Put urad dal and fenugreek seeds in a small bowl, rinse well and add cold water to cover. Leave both to soak for 4 to 6 hours.



2. Drain rice and dal-fenugreek mixture in separate colanders. Put rice in a food processor, blender or wet-dry grinder. Add 1 cup cold water and grind to a smooth paste. It will take about 10 minutes, and it may be necessary to work in batches. Repeat the process with the dal-fenugreek mixture.



3. Combine the two pastes in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk together, adding enough water to obtain a medium-thick batter. You should have about 6 cups. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and set in a warm place. Let ferment until the surface is bubbly, about 8 hours. Stir in the salt. Use the batter straight away or refrigerate for later use. (Batter will keep for up to a week, refrigerated. Thin with water if necessary before proceeding.)



4. Make the potato filling: Put ghee in a wide skillet over medium heat. When oil is wavy, add mustard seeds and cumin seeds. Wait for seeds to pop, about 1 minute, then add red peppers and onion. Cook, stirring until onions have softened, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Add turmeric, asafetida, ginger, curry leaves, garlic and green chili. Stir to coat and let sizzle for 1 minute.



5. Add potatoes and 1/2 cup water. Cook, stirring well to combine, until liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Mash potatoes a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. Season well with salt, add cilantro, then set aside at room temperature. (Potato filling may be prepared up to a day in advance.)



6. To make dosas, set a griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Brush with about 1 teaspoon vegetable oil. Ladle 1/4 cup batter in the center of griddle. Using bottom of ladle, quickly spread batter outward in a circular motion to a diameter of about 7 inches. Drizzle 1/2 teaspoon oil over the top. Leave dosa batter to brown gradually until outer edges begin to look dry, about 2 minutes, cooking on one side only. With a spatula, carefully loosen dosa from griddle. Bottom should be crisp and beautifully browned. Spoon 1/2 cup potato filling onto top of dosa, centering it as a strip in the middle of the round dosa. Flatten the potato mixture slightly. Using the spatula, fold the sides of the dosa around the filling to make a cylindrical shape. Serve immediately. Continue making dosas one at a time.



Note: If you desire, you can make batter with 3 cups rice flour, 1 cup urad dal flour, 1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek and 4 1/2 cups cold water. Ferment for 8 hours, until bubbly, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and proceed with recipe.



Coconut Chutney



Time: 15 minutes



Yield: 2 cups



1 cup plain yogurt



2 tablespoons vegetable oil



3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds



1 tablespoon sesame seeds



1/2 teaspoon asafetida



3 or 4 small green chilies, finely chopped



1 teaspoon grated ginger



1 1/2 cups grated coconut, fresh or frozen



1/2 teaspoon salt



1. Put yogurt in a mixing bowl. Set a small skillet over medium heat and add vegetable oil. Add mustard seeds and wait until they pop, about 1 minute, then stir in sesame seeds, asafetida, chilies and ginger. Cook until mixture sizzles, 1 minute more, then turn off heat.



2. Add coconut and salt. Stir to combine ingredients, then add contents of skillet to yogurt and mix well. Thin with up to 1/2 cup water if necessary. Check seasoning and transfer chutney to a serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate if desired, but bring to room temperature before serving.



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