Spice Up Your Life


By Linda Lau Anusasananan  |  

When yoga teacher and photographer Jenay Martin returns from traveling in South India (on her last trip she spent three weeks in Kerala as Shiva Rea’s photographer), it always takes her a little while to unpack and settle back into her stateside life running a small yoga studio in Northern California. And that’s when the craving sets in. “I’m obsessed with dosas,” she says. “I just love them. To me, they’re the perfect food—they’re light, but you’re still eating something substantial. In Kerala, they come on a banana leaf with sambar, for dipping, and coconut chutney. It’s my go-to breakfast when I’m there.”

All Filled Up

Dosa, a gluten-free, protein-rich dish that is eaten at breakfast, lunch, and snack time in the south of India, is made from a batter of rice and lentils that is fermented overnight, giving it a slightly tangy flavor like sourdough bread. (A similar batter is steamed in oiled molds to make thicker, chewy little cakes known as idlis.) The batter is spread thin on a hot griddle, and the resulting the most common being masala potatoes—a comforting, vibrantly flavored mixture of potatoes, onions, chilies, and spices. But there are many others, according to Anjan Mitra, co-owner with his wife, Emily, of two popular San Francisco restaurants, both called Dosa. Mitra explains that South India’s hot, rainy climate means lots of fresh produce, and its diverse population makes for many variations on the classic dosa.

“In India there are more than 100 kinds of dosas,” he says. The Mitras’ restaurants serve more than a dozen varieties of dosas; in addition to masala dosas, you can order them with fillings such as paneer (fresh cheese), eggplant chutney, or fresh spring vegetables.

In New York’s SoHo district, yogis line up at Hampton Chutney Co. restaurant after class, mats in hand, to order chai and dosa, which they enjoy in a serene setting filled with the sounds of Sanskrit chants. Owners Gary and Isabel MacGurn met in 1973 at the Siddha Yoga meditation ashram in Ganeshpuri, India, where they performed seva, or selfless service, by cooking in the ashram’s kitchen alongside other devotees from all across the globe. “I became completely addicted to dosas,” says Gary MacGurn of his time in India. “And I saw how people from all over the world, all colors, all ages—they all loved dosas!” With their guru’s blessing, he and his wife opened their first dosa shop in the Hamptons in 1997, followed by two New York locations over the next decade.

MacGurn attributes the popularity of dosas to the fact that they’re fast, healthful, and affordable. The fresh approach that stateside restaurants have taken with ingredients has probably helped, too. Dosa in San Francisco serves organic produce, sustainably sourced fish, and free-range meats. At Hampton Chutney Co., in addition to traditional dosas, you can order them with fillings like grilled portobello mushrooms; balsamic roasted onions; and avocado, tomato, arugula, and jack cheese. “If there were one food I could eat every day and not get tired of,” says MacGurn, “it’s dosa.”

Cooking Lessons

Impressed by the passion dosas inspire, I was curious to see how easy it would be to make them at home for a simple meal or for a dinner party of dosa enthusiasts. I did a little research, quizzing the Mitras about their recipe, consulting a few cookbooks, and browsing the Internet. I was confident that I could duplicate the batter—or come up with a reasonable approximation—but I knew it would help to see the technique demonstrated by an expert, so I was delighted when Mitra welcomed me into Dosa’s kitchen one day to observe dosas being made. There, I watched as one of the cooks sprinkled water and then oil over the hot surface of an expansive, flat griddle. The droplets sizzled and danced. Using a metal measuring cup with a flat bottom, he scooped up the light, bubbly batter and emptied it onto the griddle.

With the bottom of the cup, he quickly swirled the batter in concentric circles to make a thin, flat round. When the bottom was golden brown and crisp, he scraped around the edges with a wide spatula to release the dosa from the griddle. In one motion, he plopped a scoop of golden potatoes on one side and deftly folded the other side over so that the dosa draped gracefully over the filling.

Back at home after a trip to the Indian market for ingredients, I soak my rice and dahl overnight. The next day I whirl them in the blender with water until the mixture is smooth. I’m not exactly sure how thick the batter should be, so I make a few batches with different consistencies. While I wait for the batter to ferment, I try my hand at making sambar, the spicy lentil soup that traditionally accompanies the dish. There are an infinite number of recipes for this flavorful soup. Mitra has generously shared his restaurant’s recipe with me, but the length of it is daunting. I concoct a slightly simpler version using the key spices, and while my soup is neither as complex nor as fiery hot as the restaurant’s, it’s delicious.

Batter Up

Three days have passed since I started the batter, and still no action. My batter looks like wet cement. One cookbook suggests that 75 degrees Fahrenheit is a good temperature for fermentation. India is hot, as are restaurant kitchens, so the problem must be that my house is too cool. I don’t have a gas oven with a pilot light, which would be the perfect place to ferment the batter, so I make another batch and swaddle the bowl in a heating pad. I place the whole thing in an insulated bag. Since my heating pad is more than three decades old, I unplug it when I go to bed as a safety precaution, but the insulated bag does the trick: Twenty-four hours later the batter has risen into a mass of tiny bubbles, and in the meantime I’ve made spiced potatoes and another pot of sambar.

I try cooking the dosa on a flat, oiled pancake griddle and in a big nonstick frying pan; both work well. The airy batter spreads easily into thin rounds that quickly turn crisp and golden within a minute or two. I fill them with a generous mound of the golden potatoes, and my husband and I eat them with sambar. My masala dosas are not as big or as perfectly round as the ones made by Dosa’s expert staff, but they’re delicious, and I’m very pleased to find how quick they are to make—especially if I make the sambar and the potatoes beforehand. With a little prep ahead of time and a big batch of batter, they’d make the perfect party food; you could cook them one at a time for each guest, or give the dosa lovers in the group a chance to try making their own.

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Linda Lau Anusasananan, former food writer and recipe editor at Sunset magazine, is the author of the cookbook The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food From Around the World.