I discovered dosa earlier this year, and I’ve been trying to replicate and perfect them ever since. Dosa are South Indian style savoury pancakes made with a fermented rice and lentil batter. Naturally gluten free, they are a perfect accompaniment to a simple potato curry, like the one in this post here. You too can make them yourself at home, even if you are not Indian!
Scroll down to the bottom of the post to see my dosa recipe
I love those moments when I discover and taste a new, fabulous food, one I haven’t tried before. I also love trying to recreate at home the food I have enjoyed while out and about – or at least a simplified version.
All that expansion of my cultural horizons can be difficult to capture and repeat at home, for a few reasons:
- The proper ingredients can be hard to find
- Authentic cooks use special equipment and techniques
- The environment is different
So, what do you do? How do you cook Indian food at home when you are not Indian?
Here are my tips for cooking those foods you discovered from other places: search for authentic ingredients and equipment where you can: try and learn some of the key techniques used by the authentic cooks; then, in the end, accept the differences and adapt the recipe to make it work for you.
Here’s how those tips work for cooking dosa –
Find the authentic ingredients for dosa where possible. One of the key ingredients for dosa is whole, skinned urid dal (or dahl) lentils. Urid dal has a unique gelatinous quality that lends itself well to pancake batter. I did manage to find it in one of the many well stocked Indian grocery stores in my home town. Other soft lentils are an alternative, plus I have seen recipes using millet instead. If you have an Indian grocery store near you, look for parboiled idli rice to give a better consistency to the dosa. Otherwise, basmati rice is an acceptable back-up plan.
Many authentic recipes include a portion of poha, or flattened rice. That extra processing step changes the way the rice reacts in a recipe, as it swells and absorbs liquid. I didn’t even try looking for poha. Instead, I used rice flakes, which have a similar effect, plus I can easily find them in my local supermarkets and then use them in other recipes such as muesli or porridge.
2. Equipment and Techniques
As I don’t have a special, super large, flat dosa pan, I have had to change my expectations and realise my dosa won’t be as large, or as thin and crispy, as the restaurant version. I make smaller pancakes to fit our cast iron skillets.
I’m also missing a “wet grinder” to grind the soaked rice and lentils (actually, I have to confess I have never seen a wet grinder in real life). I do have a blender, which does the trick.
And as for the technique, sadly, I didn’t have an Indian grandma to watch as she made dosa for breakfast throughout my childhood. But, I do have YouTube and a bit of trial and error to help me master essential dosa cooking techniques.
Not quite as much heat or humidity as South India in my Canberra kitchen! Without that natural head start for the fermentation process, I add a little yeast to the batter and keep it comfortable in the oven on a dough proving setting, or turn the oven on low for a while then turn it off and let the batter sit inside that stored warmth.
Cooking outside the culture is not all bad
I have to say, there is a good side to living outside a particular food culture: I can take advantage of the freedom to do things my way. For example, dosa is authentically a breakfast dish, but I’ve been serving it for dinner. Certain special curries and sides are typically served with these South Indian pancakes, but I’ve been pairing them with whatever I like, with no Indian grandma frowning over my shoulder!
Warning: dosa is not (usually) a short cut food
A warning – this is a three day process. Each step is quite simple, but it is a dish to plan ahead.
I realise there are shortcuts to making dosa, and that even cooks with an Indian heritage “cheat” a little and buy ready-to-cook packet dosa flour mix rather than use the techniques they watched their grandma use. I decided not to go that route, as I actually enjoy the slow but simple process of soaking and fermenting, and I prefer using the whole foods.
My trial and error: things I learned about making dosa at home
My usual habit is to try and cook a new food once, then to forget all about it and move on to something else. This year I’ve taken a different approach and worked at improving my skills with key dishes by making them a few times. Practice makes better, so they say!
Since first trying dosa earlier this year, I have made them myself at home quite a few times, and they get better every time. All that trial and error has helped me learn a few useful tips about making dosa at home:
- Making anything a few times is a good idea if you want to master it. Each attempt gets better and quicker, and you can tweak the recipe and method to suit your own kitchen;
- Leaving the batter in the fridge for a day after fermenting improves the flavour;
- Getting the right consistency makes a big difference to how the dosa cook. So, add a little water just before cooking and stir through until the mixture is slightly thicker than milk and runs easily from a spoon;
- Some authentic recipes suggest smearing the pan with an oiled paper towel, but my pan needed more oil than this or the dosa would stick. Every second or third pancake, I added approx ½ tablespoon of a neutral flavoured oil (eg rice bran oil) to the pan/s (yes, I did have two pans going at once to speed up the process!). You may have to experiment with the oil in your own pan;
- Allowing the pan to cool slightly between each pancake is a worthwhile step. If the pan is too hot, the mixture will start cooking too quickly, before you have had a chance to spread it out in a circular motion. I moved the pan on the stovetop off the heat and left it for a couple of minutes before pouring out the next lot of batter;
- The circle thing really helps. Use a metal spoon to pour an amount of batter onto the pan. Then turn the spoon over and, with the back of the spoon gently resting on the batter, start near the centre and carefully move the spoon a few times in an outward spiral motion to spread the mixture thinner over the pan.
- Be patient before flipping the dosa. Don’t touch it! Don’t poke it with a spatula! That’s right, just leave it alone until you can see the edges of the dosa start to lift. Now you can flip it and cook the other side for a minute or two. Or, you could place a tasty filling in a line down the centre of the top of the dosa, and fold or roll the dosa over while still in the pan to enclose the filling.
I made an infographic to show you how I make dosa:
Dosa: the recipe
These quantities are enough to serve our family of 5 for two nights in a row, serving 2 pancakes per person, per meal. I prefer making a larger batch as it keeps in the fridge and makes all that patience worthwhile!
I’d love to hear from you if you do try cooking dosa at home. Let me know in the comments how it went, and leave a comment if you have even more useful tips on making dosa at home.
You can read how I tackled cooking from yet another culture in my take on How to cook Japanese food when you are not Japanese.