I remember when I first discovered the joys of that Southern Indian masterpiece, the dosa. I was reading a menu at a South Indian restaurant and something caught my eye- a crepe that claimed to be made of just fermented rice and lentils. Could it be true, I wondered, that their really was No Wheat included in the batter which produced such a gorgeous crispy golden crepe? When everyone at the restaurant assured me it was true, I took my chances and ordered a Masala dosa, a crepe stuffed with a potato green pea curry, served with a lovely coconut chutney and tongue numbingly spicy sambar soup. The crepe was enormous- actually falling off of a huge silver platter and unbelievably crispy and buttery. I loved the crepe, but it was the rich golden potato filling that made it sublime- especially when paired with sweet, creamy, spicy coconut curry. I became a Masala Dosa addict- having them at least once a week, until *alas* the restaurant changed ownership and never again achieved the same level of perfection. But by that point, I knew to look for dosas wherever I went. The key, I found, was to find a restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine rather than Northern. I found that restaurants with lots of the gluten plagued flatbreads and pakora, chickpea battered fritters that are such a feature of Northern Indian cuisine, rarely carried dosas. But, occasionally I discovered nooks with dosas in the most unlikely places- mall food courts in Seattle and Bellevue, an amazing blue indian cafe in the heart of Tokyo near the Tokyo train station… and wherever I found a new place selling them, I had to try one- for points of comparison, of course.
Of course after I had tried one, I had to try to recreate them at home. I began by trying to make the batter from scratch, using whole grains of rice and urad dal (lentils), blending them and then fermenting them overnight on the counter. It was not… a resounding success…. shall we say. But, when I tried to make the ridiculously buttery and yummy masala potato filling, I fared far better. It was just as good as I remembered. Since then I’ve made masala many times, but never the same way twice. Once I moved to Mountain View, I was delighted to find a local Indian market that sold premade and fermented dosa batter, as well as many specialty items that are impossible to find elsewhere. Although they have two brands, I buy Shastha brand Dosa batter, as the ingredients are clearly listed simply as “urad dal, rice, fenugreek, and salt.” Unfortunately I haven’t found a premade coconut chutney that doesn’t contain asafoetida. I like asafoetida, but it is generally mixed with some kind of flour, either rice or wheat, and if it doesn’t list the sub-ingredients of the asafoetida, I don’t buy things made with it. Anyway, finding the premixed dosa batter made it suddenly feasible to have dosa nights regularly at our house- all I have to do is prepare some potato masala, blend up a chutney, and maybe heat up some packaged sambar soup. Although most potato masala recipes make a large batch, I usually freeze half of it and use it for a REALLY lazy dosa night later.
The ingredients used in masala potatoes seem to vary a great deal according to the chef, but there are some constants. Potatoes, thinly sliced onions, green chilies for heat, and turmeric for color and sweet flavoring are the most indispensable elements. Depending on the chef, there may be lentils, peas, cumin, tomatoes, even ginger added. DH loves peas, apparently one of his childhood favorites that still appeals as an adult. So, whenever I make Indian food, I always add peas at any opportunity to increase the yum factor for him. Also, it just seems to add a fresh, green flavor that compliments the potatoes and lightens the feel of a heavy, rich dish. The verdict is still out on the cumin seed, which is not and never will be my favorite seasoning. But, this time I added some. The one unique ingredient I did add, and one that has become one of my favorite fresh herbs, is the Kari leaf that is sold in the produce section of our local Indian market. If you were wondering, “curry leaves are the young leaves of the curry tree (Chalcas koenigii), a member of the Rutaceae family that grows wild and in gardens all over India. Fresh curry leaves are oval in shape and best used at about 1 inch in length. They have a pungent and bitter smell much like the leaves of a citrus tree. Leaves are typically fried until browned, then cooked with the dish. Before serving, the leaves are removed.” (source: Wikipedia) They have a very distinctive flavor that adds a lot to the otherwise sweet and mild potato dish. The thing about potato masala is that it is a wonderful opportunity to create your own unique take on a dish. Slight variations in seasonings can have a big impact on the flavor, and it can be anywhere from mild and sweet, to mind numbingly spicy (but yet, still creamy), or absurdly rich and buttery. Also, once you have some made, the possibilities of what you can do with it are virtually limitless. So- enjoy! And- yes… someday I will venture into the world of homemade dosa batter, and you all will be the first to hear about it!
Masala for Dosa
Yummy Masala Goodness
3 tbsp vegetable oil (add a smidgen of ghee for flavor, sub 1 tbsp of mustard oil for additional flavor if desired)
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal (optional)
1/2 tsp cumin leaves (or not, it’s up to you)
1 lg onion, thinly sliced
1 lg. anaheim chili (or 2 small serrano chilies)
8-10 fresh Kari leaves
1 tsp turmeric (ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY ingredient)
6 lg. potatoes, peeled and boiled
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup green peas (frozen is fine, preferably defrosted and drained)
Heat oil in pan with lid and add mustard seeds and urad dal. Let begin to pop slightly (but don’t burn), and add cumin, then quickly add thinly sliced onion and anaheim chili. When onion has gone transparent, reduce heat, add the turmeric and mix throughout dish. Everything will turn a lovely golden color. (Including your hands and counters if not careful- it does stain.) Toss in lovely Kari leaves and then add the potatoes, mashing them with a potato masher or crumbling in fingers as you add them. Mix, mix, mix. Add salt, mix well, cook for 5 minutes and add peas, tossing lightly. Cook for 5 more minutes and then remove from heat.
This recipe keeps very well, and freezes beautifully. I often make up a whole batch, and then DH and I use half for lovely masala dosas (we buy batter at our local Indian store Namaste), and then put the rest in a tupperware dish, labeled, and store in freezer until our next Dosa night. Very yummy in Masala Dosa, especially with a side of Sambar and coconut or cashew chutney.