When I was a kid, my favorite restaurant was a spot called Siddhartha, in downtown Silver Spring. Siddhartha was unfussy, inexpensive, and – at least when we started going – patronized almost exclusively by Indians. In retrospect, I suppose it’s a parent’s dream: kid loves cheap, relatively health Indian food more than pizza, chicken nuggets, whatever. But when we were at Siddhartha, chicken nuggets were off the menu. I could think of only one thing, and that was masala dosa.
For the uninitiated, a masala dosa an Indian pancake, crisp and lacy outside but soft within. It’s cooked like a crepe, and then filled with a mixture of spiced potatoes and onions. Dosa batter is made of ground rice and lentils which have been fermented, so the pancake takes on a slightly sour, funky flavor (like sourdough bread: less sour, but equally distinctive).
If it isn’t clear already, I am obsessed with dosas.
If I’m being truthful, dosas fell off the map for me. There were probably 5 or 6 years when I didn’t have a single one. Looking back, that was pretty stupid. I went without because I couldn’t find a decent restaurant nearby that made them. Now I realize I could have been making them at home, all along.
Dosas came back into my life, of all things, because of a food truck. Actually, two food trucks.
Do you know about food trucks? We’ve got them all over DC, but we’re hardly the first city to develop mobile cuisine. Austin has had them for years, and the last time I was in town, strolling down South Lamar, I stopped at the food trailer park for lunch. There, set up on the gravel, was a shiny silver truck called Nomad Dosa. Natch, choosing my lunch spot was no challenge. I had one masala dosa, returned the next day at lunch for one more, and came home thinking half-seriously about quitting my job and starting a dosa truck in DC.
Seriously, if two Texan hippies with one trip to India under their belt could make decent dosas, why couldn’t I? Right then and there, I committed to finding and perfecting (perfecting!) the recipe.
Fortunately, I’ll be keeping my job for now. There’s a newish food truck in town, and it’s called Chatpat. If you live in DC and haven’t yet tried it, stop wasting time. Chatpat is a South Indian food truck that serves a slew of appetizers, one thali, and two dosa options every day. Not only do they park at my office two times a week – making a daily dosa a real possibility – but Mr. Chatpat worked with me, over several weeks, to perfect my dosa recipe so that it tastes like my best meals at Siddhartha.
You guys, I am over the moon. In the past month, I’ve had dosas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack. It seems I could eat nothing but dosas for weeks straight. And now, thanks to the magic of I-tested-this-recipe-1500-times , you can make them – and eat a million of them – too.
So thank you, Mr. Chatpat! And Todd, the Nomad Dosa man, for reminding me that dosas exist and are wonderful. I’m indebted to both of you. Perhaps, one of these days, I’ll show up with a token of my gratitude: one perfectly cooked, perfectly filled dosa. My treat.
Don't be fooled by the abundance of notes and the long recipe: dosas aren't hard to make, and they require minimal active time. However, there's a learning curve when it comes to making good ones, which is where my miniature bible of notes comes in.
For those of you who try to avoid buying “special” ingredients, my apologies. I’ve managed to do away with the special rice some recipes call for, but you do need to buy washed urad dal and fenugreek seeds. For the urad dal, you want “hulled and split black gram.” You don’t want the flour, and you want the lentils to look pale taupe, not black. The black ones have not been hulled. Urad dal are available at Indian grocery stores, as well as Kalustyan’s and Amazon (the small bag is cheaper, but the big bag is a better value). Fenugreek seeds are also available on Amazon and Kalustyans. Lastly, to make the filling and chutney, you'll need curry leaves. Available on Amazon and at Kalustyans.
Dosa batter is made by allowing raw rice and lentils to soak and soften in water, then blending them smooth, combining them, and fermenting the combined mixture. Because rice and lentils soak up different amounts of water depending on quality and age, it is impossible to say with certainty how much water you will need for your batter. Mr. Chatpat confirmed this for me. So we’re all going to have to be comfortable with a little trial and error of our own. Here’s the good news, though – if your dosa batter is too thick, you can add water as needed, at any stage of the process. My best dosas have come from batter to which I added water by the tablespoonful as I made the dosas. Tried one, too thick, add some water, tried another, etc. You’re going for batter with a consistency somewhere between pancake batter (gloopy) and crepe batter (very runny). As your dosa skills improve, you may find you want to adjust the thickness of your batter. Again, you’ll have to play around with it.
But it’s worth it. It really is.
And if you want to be really traditional about it, make sambar and/or coconut chutney to go alongside. We also served it with purchased tamarind chutney, which certainly isn’t traditional, but it is very tasty.
Sorry, one last thing. I’m told that dosa batter is supposed to double in volume while it ferments. Mine never, ever has doubled. It has increased in volume marginally, but it’s never even come close to doubling. This may have to do with the fact that it’s cold out, or it may have to do with my tap water being DC’s finest. If you want your dosa batter to rise, use room temperature filtered water, and live somewhere warm. Jokes: I’ve got strategies for keeping your dosa batter toasty below. But I have a feeling that part will be much easier come summer. Okay, onto the recipe.
1 ½ cups regular, unfancy, long-grain rice (basmati will also work, but the former is cheaper)
½ cup urad dal
½ teaspoon methi (fenugreek) seeds
1 teaspoon salt
A few tablespoons of olive oil or ghee
Wedge of an onion, for cooking the dosas
Soak the Grains: Put the rice in a medium-large bowl, and fill with room temperature water so the water level is a couple inches above the rice. Put the lentils and fenugreek in a separate bowl, and fill it, too, well above the level of the lentils. Cover the two bowls and set on the counter to soak for at least 5 hours (no harm if it’s longer – I typically leave mine overnight). The lentils and rice both will have soaked up most of the water in the bowls, and the rice will be soft enough to break with your fingers.
Make the Batter: Strain the lentils. If you reserve the water, you can use some of it to blend the lentils; otherwise, you can just use water straight from the tap (or Brita). Pour the lentils into the bowl of a food processor (best) or blender, add 2 tablespoons of water, and turn the machine on. After 30 seconds or so, stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the container. Then recover and blend until the lentils are absolutely, positively smooth. You may need to add a few more tablespoons of water as you go. In my food processor on high, this took about 4 minutes. You’re looking for light, fluffy clouds of whipped lentil batter. Think liquid marshmallows.
Use a spatula to scrape your whipped lentils into a large pyrex or other mixing bowl – the more insulated, the better. You’re going to want your dosa batter to stay warm as it ferments.
No need to clean the processor bowl; just strain the rice (reserving the liquid), and transfer it straight into the bowl, with 1 cup of the soaking liquid. Blend until the mixture is runny, milky white, and as smooth as possible, about 3 minutes. The mixture may feel ever so slightly gritty if you pinch some of it between your fingers, but you’re going for as smooth a mixture as possible.
Pour the rice mixture into the lentil mixture and use a spatula to gently fold them together. Keep folding as you would chocolate mousse or soufflé batter, until the mixture is totally uniform.
Ferment the Dosa Batter: Cover with a towel or with plastic wrap into which you've poked some holes. Set in an area that hovers around 80 or 90 degrees, and leave it there to ferment and (hopefully) grow in volume, 8-12 hours.
If your house is cold, you have a couple options. One is to turn your oven on to about 100 degrees, then put the dosa batter inside and turn off the oven. It won’t stay hot forever, but if you choose an insulated bowl, your dosa batter will have a couple warm hours at the start of its rest. You can also turn on the light in the oven to raise the temperature inside slightly. But best case scenario (which, note, I’ve never done) would be to ferment your dosa batter while you’re awake, so you can adjust the oven temperature from time to time.
If your kitchen is particularly cold, your dosa batter may need up to 18 hours of fermenting time, so be sure to make the batter in advance. The beautiful thing about making it in a cold house is that you can basically leave the batter out on the counter for a day or so, and it will get slightly more sour, but not too much. You’re looking for the batter to have become slightly frothy, and grown slightly in volume. However, if it’s cold, this may happen either slightly or not at all. Don’t worry about it. I’ve made great dosa from batter that looks exactly as it did when I first mixed it up.
Cook the Dosas: Keep in mind that dosas are like crepes. The first one, you will most likely throw away, and the best dosa comes with practice.
Set your largest cast iron or other very well-seasoned pan over medium-high heat. Nonstick is a second-best option here; you ideally want a pan with heft, but that won’t allow the dosas to stick. And you want the pan hot enough that when you sprinkle a couple drops of water, they immediately sizzle and disappear – but not hot enough that it smokes.
When the pan is hot, drizzle a couple drops of olive oil or ghee onto the cut side the onion wedge, spear the wedge with a fork, and rub the cut side of the wedge onto the pan to coat it ever so slightly with oil. (The onion will sizzle).
Use a ¼ cup measure or a ladle to pour a puddle of batter into the center of the pan, and then use the back of a wooden spoon or (if you have one) a crepe spreader. I don’t have one, and I’ve actually come to love my flat-bottomed metal ¼ cup as the perfect tool here. I fill it, pour it, and then use the bottom of the measuring cup to spread it.
To spread the dosa, move gently from the center of the dosa out to the edge in a fluid spiral motion. There may be spots you miss – you can always go back and correct them. Your technique the first couple times is going to suck. Be cool with it – you’ll get better as you go. If you need a confidence booster, check my first dosa photos on instagram. Not pretty.
Once you’ve spread your batter around the pan, drizzle a couple more drops of olive oil or ghee over the top surface of the dosa. (At this point, if you are filling the dosas, this is when you would add a spoonful of filling either to one side of the dosa (if planning to fold in half) or along the center of the dosa (if planning to roll up).)
Cook over medium-high heat until the bottom of the dosa is thoroughly golden. You’ll notice that the edges of your dosa start to lift and curl slightly when the dosa is close to done. Use a wooden spatula to lift the dosa, and either fold it over itself to make a semi-circle, or gently roll it up into a cylinder.
You can serve the dosas just like this, with sambar and coconut chutney (recipe below), or you can fill them with the potato masala filling (recipe also below). But unfilled, they make a fantastic snack.
The dosa batter will keep in the fridge for up to 1 week, but it needs to be brought back to room temperature before making dosas.
Potato Masala Filling
1 ½ lbs. gold (waxy) potatoes, peeled, boiled in salted water, and cooled slightly
3 tablespoons oil or ghee
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
2 teaspoons urad dal
1/8 teaspoon asafetida (optional)
½ teaspoon turmeric (fresh if available, otherwise dry ground)
5 curry leaves
1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
2 serrano or jalapeno chilies, membranes and seeds removed, diced
½ medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped cilantro
When the potatoes are just warm, cut them roughly into 1-inch cubes.
Gather all your ingredients before starting, because once the pan is hot, everything moves quickly. Put the mustard seeds in a small bowl, the urad dal, asafedita, turmeric, curry, ginger, and chilies in another medium bowl, and the onion in a third bowl. Set the bowls near the stove.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add oil or ghee. When oil shimmers, add mustard seeds and wait until they pop, about 30 seconds. Then add the contents of the second bowl (urad dal, asafedita, turmeric, curry, ginger, and chilies) and stir to coat with the oil. Cook 30 seconds more.
Add onions, stir to coat with spices, and cook over medium heat until they start to soften and turn translucent, about 8 minutes. Add potatoes and continue cooking another 2 minutes or so, until the potatoes start to break down.
Add the water and half a teaspoon of salt. Scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the browned bits into the potato mixture, then turn up the heat until the water comes to a boil. Cook 5 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Use the back of a fork to lightly mash the potatoes. You still want plenty of cubes, but you also want some mashed bits.
Add the cilantro, and taste the mixture; if it isn’t salty enough, add the remaining half-teaspoon of salt.
At this point, you can use the potato masala immediately, or store covered in the fridge for up to 1 week. Be sure to bring to room temperature (or even warm slightly in a microwave or on the stove) before using to fill dosas.
For the initial mixture: 1 cup fresh grated coconut (can susbtitute dry unsweetened coconut, but you'll need to add double the water) 2 small serrano or 1 jalapeno chile, chopped (seeds and membrane removed if you're worried about spice) 1 teaspoon grated ginger 1 tablespoon roasted chana dal or urad dal, lightly toasted in a dry skillet ½ teaspoon salt
For the tempering: 1 teaspoon ghee or flavorless oil (grapeseed, canola, etc.) ½ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds 1 red chile, crushed (or substitute 1 teaspoon chile flakes) 3 curry leaves, crushed
In a mini-prep food processor or blender, combine coconut, green chile, ginger, dal, and salt and blend with 1/4 cup water until smooth, adding more water if necessary and scraping down the sides of the canister as needed. Transfer to a bowl.
In a small skillet, heat the ghee or oil until it shimmers, then add the mustard seeds. After they pop, add the chile and curry leaves and remove from the heat immediately. Pour the flavored oil (with all the spices) into the coconut mixture and stir to combine. Serve with masala dosas or other indian dishes.