Sunday, June 03, 2012

Indian Masala Dosa(Rice and Lentil Crepe) - A Challenge I Tackled!

Masala Dosa with 3 different kinds of chutneys.

Making Indian Dosa was a challenge for me.  Challenge?  That's what my Indian co-worker would say.  He said that his wife makes it all the time.  It's easy, he says.  Well, yeah, it's easy if you are an Indian.  It was not for me since it is not my culture and my food.  Dosa is a South Indian rice and lentil crepe served with chutneys such as  mint chutney, tomato chutney, and coconut chutney. The filling is potato masala or aloo masala which is a semi mashed potato spiced with Indian masala spices.  It is vegan, gluten-free, economical, and delicious!  

This blog is meant to be about sharing my experience instead of sharing my recipes since I didn't create a recipe.   There is not much variation of the ancient recipe of making the crepe.  The proportion of rice to lentils is basically 2:1 or 3:1.  According to VahChef, to make a crispy dosa, increase the amount of rice (use 3:1 ratio of rice to lentil) and to make a softer dosa use more lentil (use 2:1 ratio of rice to lentil). Some people use fenugreek seeds and some people don't, depending the kind of lentils or urad dals used.

I am sharing here about the scientific details what will work and what won't work.  Also, this information is for all of you who don't live in India, live in the US, or in other colder climate.  I assure you everyone will have a different experience depending on the surrounding environment.  This is a blog of what I experienced in making dosa at my home.  Also, by the time you finish reading my blog, you will know all about 'wild yeast.'

Out of all the International dishes I tried, making Indian Dosa (the crepe) was the most challenging one.  My challenge was in the fermentation of the batter.  I followed the instructions very carefully and still my batter didn't do anything.  No fermentation after 6 hours of waiting!  Pheeeuwww!  It was very frustrating since I was hoping for a success and the batter went flat.  Usually, we ended up just going to a South Indian restaurant about 1/2 a mile away to satisfy our dosa cravings .  My husband and I love Indian dosas very much and there are plenty of South Indian restaurants in my area.  In Little India, Artesia, California, 30 minutes from where I live,  a restaurant sells a plate of dosa for $4.99.  Cheap!  Why making it at home, right?  Well, it became a challenge for me to make it at home by myself.  It is not about saving money, time, and effort.   It was something I want to tackle and to overcome.  I want to understand WHY it didn't work for me?

I kept harping at it and learned from the Internet.  Isn't Internet wonderful?  What will I do without the Internet?  I learned cooking other cultures' food from the Internet: blogs, youtube, cooking websites, cooking web tvs, and facebook.  If you are a cooking blogger or a presenter in cooking web tv or youtube videos,  read this:  THANK YOU!  Keep up your great work since you are helping and inspiring others to learn and to cook.  Without all of you my knowledge about food and culture would be narrow.  I would not have cooked a variety of International dishes.

I perused  blogs and watched videos for hours in the Internet looking for techniques and tips.  I saw several cooking videos of making dosas and idlis at youtube.  There are lots of them.  It looked so easy to make dosas and idlis in the videos.  However, when I copied it at home, step by step, the result was not the same as it was in the videos.  There were tricks and tips that were not mentioned in recipes and videos.   I compiled what I found and divided them into 4 categories:
  1. The Planning.
  2. Ingredients.
  3. Preparation of the batter.
  4. Cooking the dosa.
The blogs that I found useful are these:  one from VeggieBelly's The Perfect Dosa Recipe(Rice and Lentil Crepes) and  one from VegRecipesofIndia.  I summarized the tips from these blogs:

1)The Planning:
  • I soaked the ingredients 1 day ahead before I made the Potato Masala filling, Mint Chutney, Tomato Chutney, and Coconut Chutney.
  • On the same day I made the filling and chutneys, I processed the ingredients for the crepe in the blender late in the evening and let it ferment overnight.
  • I made the dosas the next day and reheat the filling in the microwave. That was Plan A. Hopefully, the batter was not flat.  If the batter was flat, then I went to Plan B, I added a little bit of yeast (see the tip under Preparation of Batter) and let it ferment for another 4-5 hours (breakfast will become lunch or dinner at this point). One day, I may be able to ferment the batter without the additional yeast, hopefully.
2) Tips on ingredients:
Below are the tips from VegRecipesofIndia (in Italics). My notes are in normal font.
Short Grain Rice called Idli Rice or Sona Masuri rice in Indian markets.
  • Generally, there are two types of starch in rice:- Amylose and Amylopectin
  • Long grain rice has 22 % Amylose and 78 % Amylopectin,
  • Medium to short grain rice has 18 % Amylose and 82 % Amylopectin.
  • So its better to use short to medium grain sized rice. If you don’t have access to parboiled rice, you may use a good quality rice.
A few tips for making soft idlis and crisp dosa.
  • Basmati or Sona Masoori rice also work well. I have made idlis and dosas both with Basmati rice and Sona Masoori rice.
  • You could also use a combination of parboiled rice and regular rice.
  • To get a crispier and brown dosa, add some chana dal.
  • Please do not use rice flour as it gives a poor texture.
Note: I read in this blog by Alternative Vegan that short grain brown rice was use. I haven't tried that yet. It improved the taste. That's what was said.
Split Urad Dal or Black Lentils
Urad Dal or Black Lentils:
I have seen people using skinned, spilt urad dal. I myself use these. But you can use whole urad with the black skin. The only problem will be that the black fragments of the skin will be seen in the batter once the dal is ground. You also won’t get white colour in the idlis.
Skinned whole urad lentil is better to use. If you are using spilt and skinned urad dal, then add fenugreek seeds.
In the spilt urad dal much of the wild yeast is destroyed in the splitting process. So you have to add fenugreek seeds to help in the fermentation process.
You can use Urad Dal flour. The only problem you have is that some of the wild yeast is destroyed by heat during the milling process. So you will need to add fenugreek seeds.
Fenugreek Seeds

Fenugreek seeds are also called Methi seeds in Indian markets.
Fenugreek seeds catch the same type of wild yeast as the Urad Dal. So, using fenugreek seeds just adds more yeast to the batter.

Adding Yellow Split Peas, also called Chana Dal in Indian markets, improved the color and crispiness of dosas.

3) Tips on Preparation of the batter:
  • After ingredients are soaked for 6-8 hours.  Do not throw away the soaking water.  The water may contain 'wild yeast'  that was floating in the air and then resided in the soaking water after 6-8 hours soaking.  Therefore,  the ingredients need to be soaked in open bowls (no lids).  There is a proof to this science. Read this article about how 'wild yeast' is floating in the air can be used to ferment batter.  Remember,  dosa was invented thousands years ago (6th century AD) before the invention of packaged yeast.
  • Use a powerful blender like Vitamix (that's what I have) or a powerful food processor.  Just a regular small blender you used to mix margaritas won't work well.  Your small blender may be overworked, jammed, and the motor may burned out.  The Indians seem to use this type of wet grinder.  I tried it with my powerful  Vitamix blender and it works just fine.  A powerful food processor like Kitchen Aid may also work well.
  • Use your clean hands.  Even after the ingredients were grounded, with a powerful modern machine, use your hands for several minutes to mix the ingredients, stir up and down, round and round.  This is important to start the fermentation which is from the warm of your hands.  Remember, I told you above about the 'wild yeast'?  This yeast needs to be started with warm hands.
  • Since we rely on 'wild yeast' floating in the air,  do not cover the bowl during the fermentation process.
  • Even after using your hands, the fermentation only works if your kitchen environment is warm.  Using your hands just helped to start it.  To continue the fermentation, the batter needs to be stored in a warm oven with the light on.  Turn the oven on for 180F, turn it off, turn the light on, open the oven door, put a bowl of batter in, close the oven door.
    Note:  Indians make dosa in 30-32C or 80-90F which is probably a normal temperature in India. I live in an area in Southern California where the temp is mostly between 65-75F almost all year long.  Well. sometimes it goes up to 85F but it is not very often.  I do need to create a warm environment between 80-90F or 32C as suggested by VeggieBelly
  • Now, I like this tip from Chef Vinod because I needed this help after all.  I read this tip at VeggieBelly blog.  After all those tips above, my batter was still flat at the end of 6 hours.  I guess I live in a sterile air due to air filter in our house.  There was no 'wild yeast' in our air or oven.  Southern California air tends to have less moisture.  Maybe in India, where it is warm and humid, wild yeast exists.  After I applied a little bit of yeast, after 6 hours of nothing, my batter started to ferment.  I let it go for another 4 hours.

    Chef Vinod: Fermentation is always a problem in colder places. Our modern living with air filters etc. also inhibits the capture of wild yeast from the air. Sometimes indoor air, particularly in winter with all the doors and windows shut will be low in air borne yeast cells. When all else fails, I would recommend using some yeast. Use half teaspoon in half cup water and a teaspoon of sugar to kick start yeast growth. Add to a gallon of batter.

    From now on, I will just add yeast to my batter to prevent failures.  I think Dosa restaurants are using the previous batter as a 'starter' for the next batter.
  • Keep leftover batter in the fridge.  If it is left outside, the fermentation continues.  This is actually great if you want to make dosa or uttapam or Indian thick pancake/pizza the next day.  However, you will need to take the batter out of the fridge about 1 hour before you start making dosas or uttapams since the batter needs to be in a room temperature.  I read that the batter cannot be kept more than 3 days but some said that the batter can be kept for 1 month.  I am not sure what's correct yet.  Then, I saw dosa idly batter is sold in the fridge in the Indian store near me.  I have to give this a test too.
  • Keep the batter thick if it is to be stored in the fridge. To make dosas, add water to a consistency of crepe batter.  To make uttapams, the batter needs to be as thick as American pancake batter. See the VahChef's tips on consistency in his Dosa or Dosai video.
I was so happy to see my dosa batter fermented to the rim.  Success!

4)Tips on cooking the dosa:
The one video that I like the most is  the VahChef.  I watched his video:  Dosa or Dosai.  His recipes are located in this site:  
  • VahChef uses a large non-stick pancake griddle.  I like this one and I have a large griddle like that, similar to what he used.  It's Presto Cool Touch Tilt and Drain Griddle  I bought from WalMart for about $40.  This works perfectly for dosas and really great for making a large dosa.  I never cook meat(even soy meat) or eggs on it and only use this griddle for vegan pancakes and dosas.  Or, a tava can be used, too.
  • The griddle was heated up to 375F. To test, sprinkle water on it and it should dance and disappear quickly.  This means that it is hot enough.
  • I don't use oil on it except after I already spread the dosa batter on it.  I sprinkled oil with a teflon brush just as was done on the video(not brush but sprinkle).  My co-worker told me to never put oil first when pouring dosa batter on a hot griddle or tava.  The batter will slide and will not spread thinly.
  • Spread the batter using the back of a ladle or a small glass bowl (as seen in the video) from center outward in circle motions.
  • Clean the griddle or tava with a damp paper towel after dosas are made and griddle/tava is cool to the touch.
  • At times the griddle or tava may become sticky due to oil that was sprinkled on it while making the dosa.  To get rid of the stickiness, follow this instructions How to fix a Sticky Dosa Tava from ShowMeTheCurry.  It really WORKS!
Recipes I tried successfully are:

Note: The only thing I did different with the recipes of potato masala and chutneys was reducing the amount of vegetable oil I used.  I used only about 1-2 Tbsp. oil. 

Dosa or Dosai from VahChef:  Video and Recipe

Potato Masala from VahChef:  Video and Recipe
Mint Chutney
Mint Chutney from VahChef:  Video and Recipe

Tomato Chutney
Tomato Chutney from VahChef:  Video and Recipe

Coconut Chutney
Coconut Chutney from VahChef:  Video and Recipe

I am so proud that I was able to overcome making dosas at home.  I am still learning and will update this blog in the future when I learn new tricks and tips.


Anonymous said...

wow that looks restaurant quality! i tried to make these before and completely failed at fermenting the lentils...your recipe is so helpful! i'll have to give this challenge another try! thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Me too, several failures. I added a small amount of yeast as Chef Vinod suggested and it worked. Please try again. :-) After the batter is fermented, it is easy.

janet @ the taste space said...

I've had dosa on my bucket list of things to try but I am so glad you posted this to help guide me through the trials and tribulations of dosas! Have you ever tried to make uttapams?

Unknown said...

Yes, uttapam comes from the same batter. If you separate your batter when making dosa, you can put the rest of the batter in the fridge. So for example, you have 6-8 cups of thick batter that is already fermented. Take only 1-2 cups of the batter, add enough batter to make dosas. The next day, take another 1-2 cups and make dosas again by adding water again. The 3rd day, you can make uttapam, maybe without adding water.

To reach the right consistency is also a learning process. Uttapam needs to have the same consistency as making American pancakes. I made the uttapams but didn't take a picture.

In the video of VahChef, he showed making uttapam on the same griddle.

It is better to start with thick batter (pancake consistency) when fermenting it. Then, add water for making dosas. Just make sure that the fridged/cold batter is thawed to room temperature before you make dosas/uttapams the next day.

priya said...

like your blog...very nice recipes!!!

Unknown said...

Summer is the time to make dosas. The weather where I live turn out to be hot and muggy. The warm and humid weather should help your dosa batter. Check out this video from Show Me the Curry also:

Caterers NJ said...

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Swarna said...

Nice post. I am south indian who makes dosas regularly. I do wash water of the rice and dal. Tricks to make it ferment: After grinding batter wash and dry hands mix salt into the batter with your hands.
Then take an empty ice box. Transfer batter to a box with lid. Batter should be only 1/2 of the box capacity, keep it in a paper bag and then inside the ice box. Tuck a fleece throw on top . Close the ice box. Keep something heavy on ice box like cast iron pan to prevent air going inside. Then leave it aside for overnight. Morning your batter will be ready.

Caterers in Indore said...

Nice post great food really delicious and healthy food.

Anonymous said...

Did you use Dry or wet/dry container on Vitamix?

Unknown said...

I think it is the wet/dry container.

Anonymous said...

thank you. debating on if i should get the dry or not when buying vitamix. but if you use wet?dry for dosa then it should work for idli and other batters also. thanks

Thara said...

I am so impressed! I am from South India and we can never get enough of dosai (that's the correct pronunciation-dosa is what they call it in the north). Your dosai and chutneys look very authentic. Bravo! Btw, getting the batter to ferment in cooler climates is a challenge. Considering all the challenges, your dosai looks very impressive.

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mehul said...

Thank you for this really informative and interesting post

Jessica said...

Very sweet! nice post. I appritiate your write up. Could you please tell me which blender you use for doing this? I was found a best hand blender on your blog but sad I have not got it. kindly mention me a best small blender for make apple juice.

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