It is the first thing you hear the minute non-South Indian people you travel with you learn that know you are a South Indian. It could be the auto walla who was driving me from my meeting place to work or the Dutch official who you met for a story on a sunny afternoon. Dosa never fails to cast its magic.
It is funny every time it happens though. It was a hot afternoon when I was returning to work. The auto walla cannot stop talking about how great masala dosa and sambar are since they are light on the stomach the minute he knew I came from Chennai. “I have been to Chennai twice and I loved dosa and sambar,” he told me. He did not stop there though. He said: “I’m a Punjabi but I don’t like Punjabi food, neither do my children. Because our food is all about paneer and ghee, which are heavy on the stomach.”
The Dutch personnel too had only good things to say about dosa. Recently when I had gone to meet the Dutch source, she cannot stop raving, again, about dosa. “We were in Bengaluru recently and I couldn’t stop eating dosa,” she said.
The unanimously favoured dosa is a modest traditional breakfast and dinner menu in most South Indian households, or maybe just Tamil Nadu, in the country. Dosa is made from batter made of rice and blackgram. Just like how common momos stalls are in New Delhi or waffles in Belgium, dosa carts are a common sight in Chennai. There is a dosa pushcart near the place I used to live in that is popular for its podi dosa. People from across the city visit the place just to have one or two of these ghee or rather palm oil dripping crispy podi dosa.
In my case too, honestly, I have never appreciated the modest dosa as much as I have now, after I moved to Delhi where getting a decent dosa batter is a huge headache. So far my roommates and I have experimented with three or four brands of dosa batter brands before we have finally zeroed in on one. I would not say it is perfect, but at least the dosa is brown and crispy instead of white and bland. The taste is to some extent reminiscent of what I used to eat back home.
The fact that there are more Hotel Saravana Bhavan (HSB) outlets around the world than the American restaurant chain Chili or the like brings to the fore the prominence dosa has reached in the current times.
What kind of origins did dosa have before it became the popular dish we see today or how old is this dish anyway? Apparently dosa existed for ages in most households even in ancient times. According to Sangam literature dosa dates back to I Century AD. In the book The First Spring: The Golden Age of India, the author Abraham Eraly talks about everyday food of South Indians as recorded in the ancient Sangam literature like Purananuru. Eraly mentions talk about Appam, a pancake made of fermented batter of rice and served with sweetened milk.
The book also mentions dosa that is made of fermented batter of rice and pulse and the common South Indian breakfast food as per the Sangam literature. However idli, steamed dumpling made of the same batter as dosa, so ubiquitous in South India in later times, made its appearance only around the tenth century AD, perhaps even later.
So the humble beginnings dosa had in ancient times has now evolved into an exotic dish that people would pay a premium to eat (The price these hotels charge for a plain dosa would give my granny a heart attack). Varieties of dosa has appeared in the market. In fact a friend and her brother started a dosa corner where they served close to 100 varieties of dosa like spring roll dosa. But not many people are aware of the different varieties of dosa available apart from the ever popular masala dosa. Besides masala dosa, you have varieties like pesarattu that is quite popular in Andhra Pradesh served with rava upma.
Even I, a amateur cook, can make varieties like rava dosa, wheat dosa, ragi and capsicum, onion and tomato uttapam, the thicker dosa variety. You can experiment with carrot, brinjal or even ladies finger. There is so much room for experiment. Remember, you can never get an awful tasting dosa. They are always taste proof.
But I agree. There is nothing to beat that crispy plain dosa dipped in sambar and coconut chutney!