Masala Dosa (with Potato Curry)
Someone once thought it was possible to objectively list The World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods.*
(Let’s ignore the fact that this cannot be done.)
Masala Dosa, unsurprisingly, made the cut. (It came in at number 49 out of 50.)
Crispy lentil crepes filled with savory potato curry and topped with coconut chutney. If I could ever choose a top 50, it would make my list, too.
The South Indian savory potato-y feast rarely makes an appearance on the mostly-North Indian restaurant menus in the states. But a little cup of grated coconut convinced me that I should make my own at home.
The coconut sparked a craving for spicy coconut chutney. And the chutney urged me into making something to serve it on (other than a spoon…). Dosa!
Dosa are crepes made from rice and lentil batter; they can be served in countless ways, including just on their own with ghee, as a crispy, buttery snack. The Masala Dosa version– crepes wrapped up around a dry potato curry– came about in an interesting way. At least according to (urban legend?)/Wikipedia:
“Before it was invented, plain dosa was served with potato curry (liquified potato palya) without onions in a separate cup. During a shortage of potatoes, a method was created in which potato was mashed and sautéed with onions with other spices. This was then placed inside the dosa instead of in a separate cup to hide the onions, which are not eaten by orthodox [Brahmins] and Jains. This came to be known as masala dosa, from the sautéeing of spices (masala) during the preparation of the potato palya.”
So wrapping the potato curry inside the dosa was just an ingenious way of hiding the onions! I thought this was HILARIOUS when I read it, and here’s why:
As it happens, I got so carried away by this challenging (and rewarding) cooking project, that I completely forgot about my girlfriend’s hatred of onions, and excitedly awaited her reaction to the first bite. She loved it. And she got halfway through her first Masala Dosa before she turned to me and said, “this has onions!?!” I apologized. She went right back to eating.
For quite some time I’d been entertaining the thought of making my own dosa using my crepe griddle, though granted, that way I could never make them on as grand a scale as some that I’ve seen in restaurants– check out this photo of a dosa I ate for breakfast in Singapore to get a sense of their usual gigantic scale:
However, I did learn the secret to crispy dosas after much dosa-frying trial and error…
What started out as a very frustrating experience turned into a lesson in needing to just trust myself (slash trust that everything would turn out just fine). The lentil-rice crepes were much more fragile and tricky to flip than my usual breakfast crepes, but I eventually got the hang of it. My real frustration was that at first, each time I poured my dosa batter onto the hot crepe griddle, it would immediately sizzle into a latticework-like pattern with many sizable little round holes.
I didn’t know if the pan was too hot or if something was wrong with my batter– or both– but I thought quickly and “patched” the holes by pouring another mini-ladle of batter over them. This was a bad idea.
The extra-ladled batter made the crepes too thick to get crispy. And the recipe that was supposed to produce 10-12 dosa only yielded 5 or 6! (Which is why I’ve listed the yield as 6-10 for dosa-frying beginners…)
But now that I’ve made them twice (!) I know that I should have just let it be, and the holes would have mostly closed up on their own, leaving me with an ultra-thin and ultra-crispy dosa, with latticework crispy edges all around.
Of course the other secret to crispy dosa is GHEE. I’d never used butter or oil on my non-stick crepe griddle before, but new spoonfuls of quickly-melting ghee in between dosas is key for their brown-buttery crispiness. And the EXTRA ghee that you smear around (and on top of, and under) the edges of the crepe is even more important for a perfect golden brown crunch.
I got my dosa crepe recipe from a friend’s great aunt’s (South Indian vegetarian) cookbook, called Apeetha’s Legacy of Love. (And I made up the potato curry recipe based on what I’ve learned about South Indian curries from that same friend!)
It was such a success, and wonderful to feel that I’d conquered the U.S.’s South Indian food scarcity dilemma by making my own delectable dosa at home. (I’ve since been obnoxiously proud of myself.)
So now I’m passing this dosa-making superpower on to you, too!
* The very subjective “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods” list can be found here.
Dosa Filling (South Indian Dry Potato Curry)
(Will fill about 4 small Dosa Crepes; Serves 2)
~ 10 small (or 4-5 medium) potatoes
~ ⅓ of a large onion, diced
~ 2 Tbsp. ghee or butter
~ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
~ 1-2 tsp. urud dal
~ 1 tsp. black mustard seeds
~ 1 green or red chili (green is spicier), kept whole but slit lengthwise
~ 1 inch fresh ginger, finely diced (about 2 tsp.)
~ ¼ tsp. turmeric
~ ½ tsp. coriander
~ ⅛ tsp. salt (or to taste)
~ 1 tsp. cumin seeds
~ fresh cilantro, to mix in at the end as a garnish
How to make it:
1. Chop very large potatoes into smaller chunks but keep small potatoes whole. Boil the potatoes in a pot of water for about 20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and let cool for a bit, then peel and roughly chop them into cubes.
2. In a medium saucepan, melt ghee or butter into the oil over medium-high heat, then add: urud dal, black mustard seeds, and cumin seeds.
3. Once the seeds start to pop, add the diced onions and the slit chili pepper. Mix well and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or longer, until the onion is soft.
4. Remove the chili pepper, and add: turmeric, coriander, salt, and ginger. Mix well and fry for an additional minute or two.
5. Then, add the (already boiled and peeled) potato cubes, and lower the heat. Mix to coat the potatoes well with spices and onions, and fry for an additional 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally so that too much food will not stick to the bottom of the pan. (You can also smash up the potatoes a bit– or to your desired consistency– with the back of your spoon.)
6. Remove potato curry from pan and keep warm until it can be used as filling for crispy just-fried dosas, or enjoy as a curry on its own.
Dosa Crepe Batter
Based on the recipe for “Dosai: Savory Rice and Dhal Crepe” in Apeetha’s Legacy of Love.
(Will make 6-10 Dosa Crepes; Serves 2-3)
~ 1 cup rice (I think Basmati would be best, but I used ¾ c Basmati, ¼ c Jasmine)
~ ½ cup urud dal
~ ½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
~ ¾ tsp. salt
~ ghee/butter/oil for frying the crepes
~ 3-4 Tbsp. day-old cooked rice, or poha (rice flakes)
How to make it:
1. Keeping the rice and urud dal separate from one another, rinse each well, then set each in its own small bowl to soak (first adding the fenugreek seeds to the urud dal). Soak for at least 2 hours or overnight. (If using poha, soak it with the dal and fenugreek; if using day-old rice, wait and add to the dal just before grinding in step #2.)
2. After soaking, drain water from the small bowls of rice and urud dal and grind each, one at a time, in a blender, adding in just enough water to be able to grind into a smooth paste.
3. After grinding each one, combine the ground rice and the ground urud dal in a larger bowl, add the salt, and beat until the batter becomes frothy (for about 5 minutes using an electric whisk or hand mixer). Cover and set aside for several hours or overnight to allow to ferment. (Apeetha’s cookbook recommends that in a colder, dryer climate, you might need to leave the dosa batter inside the oven, with the oven light on, over night to keep it warm enough to rise.)
4. Once the batter has risen, you can refrigerate it for later (or up to a few days), or cook with it immediately. To make the crepes: Use a smaller bowl to dilute 1-2 cups of dosa batter at a time with water, until you have a batter that will pour easily. (Add up to about ½ cup water for every 1 cup batter.)
5. Heat a crepe griddle or flat frying pan over medium heat, and grease with ghee, butter, or oil. Pour ½ cup of the smooth batter around the pan, and use the back of the ladle to evenly spread out the batter into a thin 7-8 inch crepe (it’s best to spread the batter around as you pour, since the second it starts cooking, the fragile partly-cooked crepe will easily stick to a ladle or spatula and tear). Fry for 2-3 minutes, or until the underside has turned a nice golden brown. Carefully flip the dosa over, and cook on the other side for 1-2 minutes. Remove and keep warm. (For crispier crepes, use more ghee– especially around, on, and under the edges; turn up the heat; and cook for longer.)
6. Re-grease the griddle for each new dosa, first adjusting the consistency of the batter by diluting it with more or less water, if necessary.
You can assemble the dosa either on or off the crepe pan/griddle. (I transferred each one to a plate first, so I could start the next one cooking.)
With the crispier (cooked-first) side down on the plate, optionally smear the center of the crepe with a bit of spicy coconut chutney. Then generously spoon some potato curry across the crepe, and fold or roll up.
Serve right away, while the potato curry is still warm and the edges of the dosa are still crispy, with coconut chutney to spoon over the top.