That’s how masala dosa is made. You spread a thin layer of the urad dal / rice batter. You top it with some seasoning. Then comes the masala with potatoes, herbs and spices. It is topped with raw cabbage for extra texture. And in two-three minutes it is folded into crispy perfection.
Dosa is a south Indian staple, a thin crispy pancake served for breakfast or as a quick snack throughout the day. Masala dosa – or dosa served with spiced potatoes (aloo palya) – is literally the first thing any foreigner eats upon landing in India, and it’s pretty delicious.
You start with a fermented rice mixture, a common starter for many meals here including idly and dosa. Mix 2 cups of rice (white, red, or a mixture of the two) with up to 1 cup of chana dal. Add a handful of methi seeds (also known as fenugreek seeds). Let soak for a few hours.
Drain the water. Blend until mix is a fine consistency, then add water until the batter is thin. Store in a large, covered container in a warm space. Ferment overnight.
Cook your dosa on a large, nonstick pan. Heat the pan first, then spread some batter thinly over the entire pan. When the bottom is getting crispy, add a little oil or ghee (clarified butter) to the edges. Flip, cook briefly. This side will not turn as dark – that’s fine.
You can eat the dosa plain, or serve it with chutney, aloo palya, or really, anything else. Tear it apart and eat it with your hands for the full experience!
The dosa, South India’s gluten-free crepe, can stand in for bread and take whatever filling you toss its way.
I’m addicted to dosas, the wafer-thin, oversized crepes indigenous to the south of India. Served plain or sprinkled with chopped onions, these versatile pancakes—made from little more than dal (dried peas, beans or lentils), rice and water—enhance any Indian meal. And outside the bread basket, they appear in combination with a wide range of fillings, the most popular being tomato, herb or cheese omelets; fresh vegetables paired with mint chutney; and—odd as it sounds—Chinese noodles flavored with Indian spices.
I learned to make dosas on a recent trip to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two of the southernmost states in India. The distinct, slightly fermented taste of these light pancakes was irresistible; from the first bite, I was a convert. Despite being free of sugar, fat, dairy, cholesterol and gluten—and containing fewer than 100 calories—dosas are super-satisfying. Their rice-and-beans foundation also makes them a good source of protein, while fermentation boosts their content of vitamins B and C. Since returning to New York, I’ve made this miracle food nonstop and now keep dosa batter on hand at all times. Refrigerated plain, without any additions, it lasts for weeks (but just in case, I always keep another quart or two as a back up in the freezer).
Through the ages, dosas have been partnered with Indian stews such as curries and sambars. However, a piping hot masala dosa—the pancake spread with garlicky green herb paste and flavorful potato masala—is my current go-to recipe for myself and company. Divinely crispy on the outside and filled with a meltingly soft potato hash, it gets a boost of flavor from a mix of fresh curry leaves, ginger and chiles. A barely cooked tomato-dal chutney served alongside brilliantly gilds the lily, brightening the dish with acidity and an unexpected crunch. I’ve also learned that while quintessentially Indian, dosas are surprisingly tasty when eaten with western food as a bread substitute—say, as a stand-in for pita bread or as the base of a wrap sandwich. In addition to preparing dosas for breakfast in the Indian style—accompanied by tomato, coconut or mint chutney—I sometimes drizzle them with very nontraditional maple or boysenberry syrup. Or, for a special treat, roll a dosa around fresh-herbed scrambled eggs, chopped smoked salmon, chives and a bit of sour cream. At lunch, fold a dosa around almost any salad—chicken, potato, seafood, tuna, mixed green or even guacamole. Encasing the warmed remains of a chicken, meat or vegetable stew or stray roasted or grilled vegetables in a freshly made dosa is the most delicious way I know to use up leftovers. Sprinkle chopped basil, tarragon or parsley over your impromptu fillings and the results fly off the charts. Use your imagination—along with the contents of your fridge—and the scrumptious possibilities are endless.
Hands-on prep time for these pancakes is about 10 minutes to make the batter and 2-3 minutes to fry up each dosa. But be sure to start at least 24 hours ahead to allow time for the ingredients to soak and the batter to ferment.
Makes approximately 16 large dosas.
2 cups long-grain white or brown rice ¼ cup urad dal
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
½ cup cooked short-grain rice or a risotto rice such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil Ghee or butter (optional)
What To Do
1. Soak long-grain rice, urad dal and fenugreek in warm water for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours.
2. Drain mixture and place in a blender with about 2 cups warm water. Grind on high speed, gradually adding cooked rice, until you have a very smooth batter.
3. Let batter ferment at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 12 hours or until bubbly and frothy. Once fermented, add salt and enough water to obtain the consistency of slightly thickened cream.
4. Lightly grease a hot griddle or heavy skillet with vegetable oil. (The oil is not necessary if using a nonstick pan.) Ladle 1/3 cup batter (use more or less to vary size of dosa) onto griddle and, working concentrically from center, immediately spread batter with bottom of ladle until as thin as possible.
5. Cook over medium-high heat until bubbles form and underside of dosa is golden, about 2 minutes. To create a crisp pancake, flip dosa and brush with melted ghee or butter. For a softer pancake, don’t flip it.
This flavorful potato-vegetable side dish is also a popular dosa filling. The recipe takes about 30 minutes to prepare and makes enough to fill approximately 16 dosas or serve 4 as a side dish.
4 large Yukon gold potatoes
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/8 teaspoon asafetida powder
10 fresh curry leaves (or substitute dried curry leaves soaked in warm water for 10-15 minutes and drained)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 tablespoon urad dal
1½ cups minced onions
2/3 cup chopped tomatoes
1 green chile, seeds removed and minced
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
red chile flakes, ¼ teaspoon or to taste
¼ cup chopped cilantro
What To Do
1. Peel potatoes, cut them in half and place in a medium saucepan. Cover with cool water, add half the turmeric and half the salt, bring to a boil over high heat and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and roughly chop potatoes. Set aside.
2. While potatoes are cooking, drizzle oil into a heavy skillet set over medium heat. When oil is hot and almost smoking, add the asafetida and curry leaves and then the mustard seeds and dal. Cook, stirring, until the mustard seeds begin to pop and the dal is golden, 30-60 seconds. Add onions, tomatoes, green chile and ginger to the pan. Stir-fry 1-2 minutes, then add red chile flakes and the remaining turmeric and salt.
3. Gently stir in reserved potatoes, cover and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in cilantro and adjust seasoning. Serve warm as a side dish or use to fill dosas.
This Indian “salsa” also perks up grilled chicken, salmon fillets or scrambled eggs. Makes 6-7 cups.
Heat ¼ cup vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons mustard seeds and cook until seeds begin to pop. Add 1/3 cup Bengal gram dal* and 2 tablespoons urad dal* along with 1 chopped onion, 25 fresh curry leaves, 3 tablespoons minced green chile and 3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger. Cook until onions are translucent and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add 3 cups finely chopped tomatoes and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add at least ½ teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Add 3 more cups finely chopped tomatoes and cook briefly until heated through. Transfer to a bowl. Serve warm or at room temperature with potato masala or plain dosas.
Dosas are painted with mint-cilantro paste, spread with potato masala and then lightly sautéed.
Hands-on time: about 20 minutes to assemble and fry up 12-16 dosas. For easier prep, have a few skillets going at once: one or two to cook the dosa and one or two to heat filled dosas.
In a food processor, purée 1 cup each fresh mint and fresh cilantro leaves with ¼ cup chopped onion, 1 clove garlic, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and salt and pepper to taste. Set mixture aside. Prepare 12-16 dosas, cooking them on one side only. Spread the cooked side of each dosa with a thin layer of mint-cilantro mixture. Using prepared potato masala, spread 2 tablespoons on one half of each dosa on top of mint-cilantro mixture. Fold each dosa in half so it forms a semicircle. Pat down with spatula. Lightly brush both sides of each dosa with ghee, butter or oil. Warm skillet over medium heat and cook dosas until golden and slightly crisp. Serve with tomato chutney.