When I first saw a dosa being brought to a neighbouring table at an Indian restaurant, I was both surprised and intrigued by its appearance and how it would be eaten. It is certainly a spectacular food, but it’s also fun to eat. You simply break pieces off and use it to scoop up mouthfuls of chutney.
Dosa originated from Southern India and is a crepe-style very thin pancake made with a fermented batter usually made from rice and lentils (dal), although a variety of grains and legumes may be used including millet and chickpeas. Whole rice and lentils are mixed with water and pureed in a blender/food processor before allowing them to ferment for a day or so in a warm place to grow the natural yeasts and develop the flavour. Some recipes call for fenugreek seeds that add flavour but are also thought to improve digestion. Cheat recipes call for pre-ground rice and lentil flour, even wholewheat flour, and adding lemon juice instead of fermenting the batter.
Crispness is the name of the game when it comes to cooking dosa, because crispness makes for a stronger scoop. The batter is cooked in an oiled, heavy-based flat pan on moderate heat allowing the dosa to cook and brown gradually. They can then be shaped while still warm and will retain this shape when cool, such as long tube rolls, or like a lampshade (lifted up and fanned out from the middle). However, there is variation in the texture also. Restaurants serve ‘paper dosa’ (like the ones I saw) that are stiff, whereas home cooks generally produce a spongier, softer version.
Traditionally they are consumed as a breakfast dish, although the rise of Indian street food around the world has blurred the timing and it is consumed at any time of day.
The nutritional content depends on the ingredients of the batter, and this varies across India and throughout the Indian diaspora. Incorporating legumes with the grains ramps up the overall nutritional value, and using wholegrains increases the fibre content. The ingredients also impact the glycemic index (GI). A new publication has revealed GI values for may traditional non-Western foods, finding GI ratings for dosa are high, moderate or low depending on the ingredients. There may be additional gut health benefits of dosa from the probiotic effect of the fermented batter.
There’s an art to making dosa at home and practice makes perfect. If you’re not lucky enough to have a dosa expert in your family, do what I do and order it in an Indian restaurant. In fact, there are entire restaurants devoted to this specialty dish. While we can’t travel freely right now, we can support our local restaurants and take a culinary journey instead.
Source: USDA, 2021
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, author, consultant, cook and food enthusiast who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.
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