The richest contribution the British made to India, in my mind, was the introduction of the railway in 1851. Their legacy continues to chug along the millions of tracks even in the 21st century, providing billions of travelers a life of convenience, reunification, separation, joy and even pain.
A recent journey was excruciatingly long even before it really began. We piled into our cushioned first-class sleeper compartment in the Chennai (formerly Madras) Express, which would be our home for the next 18 hours. Lunchtime was fast approaching, the rumblings in my stomach provided unnecessary reminders every five minutes. I looked out the barred window as the boxcar rocked us in cradle-like comfort, and the train’s wheels rattled on the tracks over a bridge. The muddy water below shimmered under the sun’s rays as three water buffalo wallowed with siesta-like laziness in its dirty coolness. Close to the town of Guntakal, fields of sunflowers appeared magically, standing in subservience to Surya, the sun God. “They are being harvested for their seeds which will be turned into cooking oil,” my sister remarked. A pang of hunger washed over me one more time when I heard “cooking.”
Omelets at the station
As the electric engine chugged onto the platform of Renigunta Junction, I saw throngs of people waiting to greet loved ones at the station. A little boy with tattered clothes held a baby monkey in his arms as he glided under the windows, one hand outstretched for money. A taxidermist with coarse hair carried a sleeping baby on her back as she hawked stuffed squirrels. A vendor with muscular thighs, his dhoti folded in half along his charcoal-black, pushed a wooden cart filled with eggs and onions surrounding a gas-lit portable stove. A flat, round griddle rested atop the stove, with beaten eggs sizzling in oil. He served the prepared omelets folded with cilantro-flavored onions accompanied by slices of white bread and long, curvaceous, green cayenne chilies.
Another vendor dunked thick slices of plantains in garbanzo bean flour batter and fried them golden brown, offering them for sale on rectangular pieces of grease-stained newspaper. My eyes were drawn to a woman helping her husband as he prepared, with the grace of a bharatanatyam dancer, lacy-thin, golden-crisp crêpes stuffed with lime-kissed, chile-smothered potatoes. This was what I needed to appease the cavernous hole in my belly — and seconds later his wife, a ring through her nose and her face creased, handed me a masala dosa rolled in a large square of banana leaf. She grabbed the two rupees from my right hand and scurried back to her husband.
I was amazed at the briskness of the transactions that occurred on that platform within the 15 minutes that we waited for the train to switch to diesel. Shortly after we pulled away, another train pulled in, and its passengers witnessed and engaged in the ongoing performance.
Rice-lentil crêpes with spiced potato filling
Makes 10 dosas
For the batter:
For the filling:
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the batter:
- Place the two varieties of rice in a medium-size bowl and add enough water to cover. Gently, with fingertips, rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; do not drain the water this last time. Add the fenugreek seeds to the bowl. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 4 to 5 hours, or overnight; drain.
- Plunk the lentils into a small bowl and add enough water to cover. Gently, with fingertips, rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; do not drain the water this last time. Cover the bowl and store at room temperature for at least 4 to 5 hours, or overnight. Drain.
- To liquefy the rice, pour ½ cup warm water into a blender jar and half of the soaked rice. Puree, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, until the batter is smooth. It may feel slightly grainy and that’s all right. If the blades don’t function as the batter thickens, pour in a little more water, just enough to get the batter to cooperate. Pour this into a large bowl. Repeat with the remaining rice. Now pour ¼ cup warm water into the same blender jar and add soaked lentils. Puree, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, until the batter is smooth. (You don’t grind the rice and lentils together because rice takes longer to break down.) Add the lentil batter to the rice batter and stir in the salt. Beat in an additional 1¼ cups of water, using a whisk to end up with a batter the consistency of slightly watered down pancake batter.
- Cover the bowl and place it in a warm spot in your kitchen. (I usually place it in an unused oven and turn the oven light on. The warmth generated by the light is enough to allow the batter to ferment and lighten up overnight.) The batter should have a sourdough-like aroma with bubbles, thanks to the natural formation of carbon dioxide as a result of fermentation.
For the filling:
- Combine the potatoes, cilantro, salt, turmeric, curry leaves, chiles and lime juice.
- Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the skillet, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (much like popcorn), about 30 seconds. Add the lentils and stir-fry until they turn golden brown, 15 to 20 seconds. Scrape this nutty oily mixture into the bowl with the potatoes and stir well. Divide this addictive filling into 10 equal portions (it’s OK to snitch a taste.)
For the crêpes:
- Coat and heat a medium-size nonstick skillet with a teaspoon of oil over medium heat; ladle ½ cup batter and with the back of the ladle, quickly and evenly with a clockwise motion, spread the batter to form a paper-thin, unbroken circle roughly 8 inches in diameter. Cook until the top of crêpe is opaque and the bottom side is golden brown and starts to curl up around the edges. Flip the crêpe and brown the other side, about 1 minute.
- Transfer the crêpe to a serving platter. Place one portion of the filling in its center and fold it over to cover the filling; serve immediately.
- Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.
- If the pan gets too hot between crêpes, the batter will clump up as soon as its poured, preventing an even spread. Lower the heat or wipe the skillet with a clean paper towel moistened with cold water before continuing to make additional crêpes.
- Dosais are traditionally served with a pigeon pea stew called sambhar and a fresh coconut chutney. You can even serve them in its unaccompanied form as a substantial main-course offering.
- Leftover batter can be refrigerated for up to two weeks but when frozen, it can bring you joy even two months later!
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning ”660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at turmerictrail.com.
Photos from top:
Crepe being prepared on griddle
Masala dosa, folded.
Credits: Raghavan Iyer
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