How to cook the perfect dosa – recipe – The Guardian

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Dosa, or dosai, is the name of a family of pancakes from south India first mentioned in Tamil Sangam literature about 1,500 years ago. They can be thick or thin, sweet or savoury, and made from everything from oats and barley to chickpeas, but the most common version, known only as “dosa” or “ordinary dosa”, is a tangy, crisp mixture of rice and urad dal, often served with fresh chutneys or stuffed with spiced potatoes (to make it a masala dosa). Full disclosure: these are a bit of a labour of love to prepare from scratch, which is why they make such perfect street food, but they’re also so good even when they’re bad, that I’m confident you won’t regret it.

Early attempts were not promising.

According to Chandra Padmanabhan, author of Dosai, a collection of 100 recipes for different varieties, dosas are “a popular breakfast meal in all of the four states of south India”, a fact confirmed by Indian friends, who concede that perhaps occasionally you might have them for “brunch or lunch in restaurants, but never dinner” (a statement some busy street-food sellers might dispute), yet to my mind they’re utterly delicious at any time of day and with all sorts of fillings, from the traditional to Sohla El-Waylly’s “grilled cheeses, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, breakfast burritos and, when no one is looking, an epic pizzadilla”. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.

And before I begin proper, I’d like to thank the many, many people who offered wisdom and support on the subject during my ongoing dosa odyssey, who contacted expert friends and fellow dosa lovers on my behalf, who dredged up childhood memories and who assisted with equipment and translation. Your help is very much appreciated.

The rice

Two problems arose during the researching of this piece. One was my hopeless ineptitude at spreading batter neatly, an ongoing situation being dealt with in accordance to the old maxim, practice makes perfect, and the second, more serious one was that, as with many beloved dishes, there’s very little agreement about many things dosa related, and particularly hot debate over which rice is best.

Batter made with basmati after 12 hours.

Some recipes, particularly those writing for a predominantly western audience, call for long-grain rice such as basmati, with El-Waylly recommending it for its “high percentage of amylose. The long chains of glucose in amylose pack tightly together into straight, stable rows, forming stiff, strong structures. It’s the amylose in long-grain rice that gives a dosa its crisp texture – too much, and the dosa will be dry and brittle; not enough, and it will end up soft and flaccid.”

Batter made with dosa rice after 12 hours.

Conversely, Vivek Singh calls for either basmati (long-grain) or dosa rice – “a kind of fat, short-grained, parboiled rice”, according to Anjana Devasahayam of the Happy and Harried blog – which is also Padmanabhan’s rice of choice. Mallika Basu’s book Masala, meanwhile, combines ordinary and flattened rice (flakes of beaten parboiled rice known as poha, which, like cooked or par-boiled rice, will help speed up fermentation), while chef Minal Patel of Prashad in Drighlington, West Yorkshire, claims that broken rice is “perfect here, because the starch helps to make the dosas lovely and crispy”. Nik Sharma’s astonishingly comprehensive dosa guide, however, suggests that dosa or ordinary short-grain rice will work just as well as the basmati he favours – “I thought the difference in the starch types of long-grain and short-grain rice would have an effect, but it didn’t in my hands.”

To test this theory, I make Sharma’s recipe with some paella rice I have hanging around and another batch with ordinary short-grain and, like him, I don’t notice any significant difference in texture (though connoisseurs may well disagree – if you have evidence to the contrary, please do share it below: there are so many known unknowns here that I consider this week’s column merely a work in progress).

Indeed, the principal difference between all these rices, as far as I can tell, is in the speed at which they ferment: according to those far more expert than me (ie, Sharma), “par-boiling makes the starch more available via hydrolysis, but yeasts synthesise amylase to break starch down. The amylose comes out of the starch granules during parboiling, which might help metabolism of the yeast.” The result, which even I can understand, is that batter made with par-boiled rice ferments noticeably faster than one made with basmati; it also seems to make slightly fluffier dosas, but that may well be because the batter is better fermented – certainly it has a more pronounced tangy flavour after 24 hours.

To summarise, for those less interested in rice varieties than me, use any kind of raw or commercially par-boiled rice you like, but, unsurprisingly, dosa/idli rice seems best suited to the job.

The dal

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 01

Ordinary dosa is always made with urad dal, or black gram, the same lentil used to make delicious, creamy dal makhani, though opinion is divided on whether the whole unskinned bean should be used, or whether washed or even split urad dal is acceptable. The arguments for the extra task are that the skin adds to the nutrition and flavour of the dish, which seems fair, except that they’re then often – though not always – removed later in the process. As this is a fairly involved recipe anyway, I’m going to go with washed dal (either split or whole – the latter requires a longer soak, but then, so does the rice).

The magic ratio

Padmanabhan explains that the earliest dosa would have been made from rice alone; adding urad dal, or black gram, turned it into a nutritional powerhouse of complex carbohydrate and protein: “Served with a coconut chutney and vegetable sambar, it becomes a complete balanced meal.” But rice remains the main ingredient: a few recipes use twice as much rice as dal, with Sharma going down to as little as 1.5 parts rice to 1 part dal, though ratios of 3:1 (Padmanabhan, Singh’s Indian Festival Feasts, Basu) or even 4:1 (Patel) are more common.

According to Sanjay Thumma, known as Vah-Chef to his many followers online, “The proportion of your rice to your lentil dal determines how crispy your dosa will be … if you like it crispy, increase the proportion of your rice”. The dal, meanwhile, seems to act as a glue: Sharma suggests that, when it’s ground up, it produces “a slimy mucilage which I think helps with spreading, etc … it’s used as a biological film in the biotech industry”. Slimy mucilages and biological films might not sound particularly appetising, but they do give the dosa coherence and elasticity – pure rice dosas are far more fragile and crumbly. Because I like my dosa quite crisp, but still flexible enough to shape around a filling, I’ve planted my flag firmly in the middle ground and gone with a 3:1 rice-to-dal ratio, but do experiment to find what suits your taste.

The soaking, grinding and fermentation

Soaking both the rice and the dal in water makes them soft enough to grind into a batter (tap water does the trick for me, but if you’re in an area with heavily chlorinated water, you may wish to consider using bottled). Again, there’s no consensus on whether the two should be treated separately or together – El-Waylly keeps them separate, so she can stir the dal soaking liquid into the batter to “speed up the fermentation process”, but others just chuck that anyway and use fresh water instead. I found it easier to get a smooth batter by blending the two separately, and feel the soaking liquid gives El-Waylly’s dosas a more pronounced, earthy flavour that I enjoy.

Ideally, you’d use a high-speed blender for this task, if not a traditional wet grinder, but don’t despair: you can still get good results in an ordinary blender; you’ll just need a little more patience to avoid overheating the motor, as I did on my first attempt. Pulsing it for 10 seconds, then leaving it to rest for the same time, worked for me, as did keeping the batter fairly liquid from the start, rather than diluting it just before cooking, as Padmanabhan’s recipe recommends. It doesn’t need to be silky-smooth, however: Thumma cautions that “if you want a nice, crispy dosa, don’t blend it very fine, leave it slightly coarse”.

Getting a bit better!

Fermentation is, of course, a bigger headache in British kitchens than in Indian ones: chef and food writer Roopa Gulati, author of India: The World Vegetarian, published in spring, remembers Laxhmi, the south Indian home help of her childhood, leaving “the dosa batter out in the sun for a full 24 hours (it was brought indoors at dusk) [and] longer in winter”, and muses that she may have felt the fermenting process was more important than the raw ingredients. In the absence of that helpfully hot sun, to encourage things along, Sharma advises starting when you soak the rice and dal, then holding the batter at between 21C and 27C, either in a sous-vide machine or a warm place (El-Waylly also favours a sous-vide or a slow-cooker with a yoghurt mode). If you don’t have such machinery handy, Basu suggests covering the bowl with a damp tea towel and putting it in the oven with the light on; a blob of fermented batter should, Sharma explains, float in water, which is a reassuring test. I’m also going to add a pinch of sugar to get things going. It’s not traditional, but then neither are Britain’s freezing temperatures. (Mixing it with clean hands will also help in this department, thanks to the natural yeasts on your skin.)

El-Waylly goes for a double fermentation, almost like a bread dough, stirring it down as it rises “to release the built-up gases”, which, she explains, “allows a more complex flavour to develop” and gives the batter “a light, meringue-like texture”. I’m afraid to say my testers and I couldn’t detect this, but those with more sensitive palates might like to knock it back halfway through fermentation.

The other ingredients

Fenugreek seeds are optional, but traditional, not least because they’re said to aid digestion of the dal. More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, they also add a distinctive and, I think, delicious flavour to the dosa, but leave them out if you like. El-Waylly also adds bicarbonate of soda, which reacts with the acid created by the fermentation process to create extra-bubbly batter, but I don’t think you really need this; to me, it makes them feel a bit like pikelets.

The quick versions

If you’re desperate for a dosa at short notice, and don’t have a source nearby (note that some Indian grocers sell ready-made batter in the chilled section), you could do a lot worse than cheat: Meera Sodha has a fairly standard “proper” recipe in her book Fresh India, and also includes a “daily” version using chickpea and wheat flour that comes together in minutes and has a deliciously rich, toasty flavour, though they’re less close to the real thing than the “cheat’s method” in Dan Toombs’ The Curry Guy Easy book. Rather than faffing around with soaking and grinding, he uses rice and urad dal flours, as they do in “busy restaurants”, and suggests adding a squeeze of lemon juice if you don’t have time to ferment them. The flavour is certainly less interesting and, thanks to the fine grind, the results less crisp, but as a quick fix, it’s not half bad. (Note that urad dal flour is fairly easy to source at specialist Asian food stores.)

One step forward two steps back

The cooking

My top tip here is to invest in a flat pan – a frying pan will make it tricky to free the dosa. Though I get (relatively) good results on my cast-iron griddle, many online convince me I’ll never achieve success without a proper tawa, only for others then to inform me, after I’d purchased this more lightweight flat pan, that tawa are only for roti and paratha, while others still chipped in to say non-stick never produces great dosa. As with the rice, it seems there’s no right answer here, but as long as you have a flat pan, and get it hot, but not too hot, you should be fine; as Sharma observes, “dosa needs low heat to cook and brown well”.

You also don’t need much oil – just enough to grease the pan. Everything else is just flavour: drizzle it with ghee, if you like, but it’s not necessary, especially if you’re serving it with a rich accompaniment. It’s also up to you how thick you make them; restaurant-style “paper dosas” are so named for their delicacy, while homestyle dosas tend to be a little spongier. Too chunky, however, and they won’t cook through, so it’s worth practising until you achieve your idea of personal perfection. What is essential, however, after 36 hours of patience, is to make sure you eat them as hot and as crisp from the pan as possible; you may wait for dosa, but dosa waits for no one.

Prep 20 min
Soak 6-8 hr
Ferment 6 hr+
Cook 3 min
Makes 6

300g rice, ideally idli/dosa rice or easy-cook
100g washed urad dal
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
, to cook

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 02

Wash the rice, then put it in a bowl and cover it generously with cold water. Do the same with the dal in a second bowl, this time adding the fenugreek seeds, too. Put both bowls in a warm place (an airing cupboard or the oven with the light on) and leave to soak for six to eight hours, or overnight.

Drain both bowls, retaining the liquid from the dal, then, working in batches, grind both separately in a blender or wet grinder with a little of the dal soaking water until creamy, but still with a very slight grittiness.

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 03

Put both in a large bowl with the sugar and mix with your hands to combine, adding more of the dal soaking water, if necessary, until the mix is the consistency of a thick pancake batter. Cover loosely with a damp tea towel, and leave to ferment until it’s a mass of bubbles, with a slightly tangy smell: depending on atmospheric conditions, this can take anything from six hours to 24 – as a guide, when a little of the batter is put into a glass of water, it should float.

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 04

Stir in the salt – you may also wish to add a dash more water to thin the batter for the first few dosas, because this makes it easier to handle.

Put a flat griddle pan (or tawa) on a medium heat and grease all over with a little oil (traditionally, this is done with the flat side of a halved onion). Once a droplet of water sizzles on the surface, lower the heat and pour a ladleful of batter into the centre of the pan. Using the back of the ladle (or the base of a small heatproof bowl), and starting from the centre, spread out the batter in concentric circles, pushing down quite hard, until it covers the surface of the pan – don’t worry if it seems thin in places and don’t worry if it’s not perfect: the first few are always tricky, but still taste good.

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 05

Cook until the edges start to come away from the base of the pan, then slide a flat spatula underneath to loosen – add some more oil or ghee around the edges to help, if necessary. Carry on cooking until the top is dry – if you’ve made the dosa thick, you may wish either to flip it or to put a pan lid on top to help it along.

Felicity Cloake’s masala dosa 06

Now fold up or fill and roll, and serve immediately with your accompaniments of choice. Wipe the tawa with a damp cloth to cool it down before repeating with the rest of the dosa batter.

• Dosa: do you like them thick or thin, soft or crunchy – and which variety is your favourite? Can anyone explain more about the science of the rice involved? And… I’m listening: please tell me what have I got wrong?

Source: Thanks