America has its pancakes, France its crepes, but the pinnacle of flat, fried, batter evolution was achieved in South India, with the creation of the. The average Kannadiga calls it a dosa, elsewhere in Tamil Nadu it will be called a dosai or a thosai, “North Indians” (any one who isn’t from the southern four states) insist on calling it “dosa” (डॊस as opposed to दॊस), and eat it with “sambhur” (as opposed to sambhaar), but what's in a name? That which we call a dosa by any other word would taste as good. They come in many shapes and sizes; small and large, crisp and dark or light and soft, and with or without stuffing. Yet, ask a connoisseur of South Indian food (“tiffin” to be precise) what the king of good food is, and more often than not, “dosa” is chanted in reply.
I have been searching for the perfect dosa ever since I was a little lad, barely tall enough to reach the kitchen-counter at home. The type of dosa does not matter. The traditional popular favorites remain “plain” dosa, masala dosa and rava dosa. But destiny (in the form of my mom) has been kind enough to supply me with elusive masterpieces like the “arasi” (rice) dosa, or the “seera parupu” (Moong dal) dosa. A dosa in solitude can be plain, mundane, sometimes even boring. Yet, in the company of good chutney (with the optional sambhaar) it reaches sublime heights. The chutney should ideally be thick, cool, coconut chutney, but mint, or tomato-onion, or even “gongura” work beautifully. Sambhaar, however, sometimes tends to overwhelm the taste of the dosa, and even an average dosa passes muster when eaten with good sambhar.
Like the explorers of old, I have roamed streets and traveled to the remotest corners of southern India to find the perfect specimen. In Jayanagar 4th Block, a suburb of Bangalore, an enterprising hotel owner (Ganesh Darshan) started a “Dosa camp” some fifteen years ago. A little stall was set up outside the hotel, and the finest professionals that could be found were hired to make a dazzling range of dosas. Their traditional “Bangalore” or “Mysore” masala dosa, crisp and dark on the outside, soft in the inside, with a layer of red spice, a dollop of divine potato-onion filling and a lump of butter became an instant hit. So too did their “cauliflower” dosa, and the rava dosas. But sometimes ambition and imagination got the better of them, and they conjured up bizarre concoctions like the “Benaras paneer” dosa, or “Kashmir” dosa (how a quintessential South Indian delicacy got those names eludes me), which though palatable no longer remained a dosa. Yet, in spite of their popularity, this treat still costs just Rs. 12.
Mysore, that quiet, sleepy town (that is today what Bangalore was in the ‘80’s) has a number of little joints that would make the inventor of the dosa proud, with masala to kill for. But for dosa masterpieces, you need to (in Horace Greeley’s words) go West. Located close to the Arabian Sea, the temple town of Udupi attracts thousands of pilgrims. Yet, the town is arguably even more famous for its sons, who left the town with a prayer to Krishna, and set up “Udupi” hotels across the country, serving amongst other things, fine dosas. Obscure little food-spots in Udupi serve delectable dosas to die for.
Andhra Pradesh and Kerala both disappointed me with the dosas they provided. Across Andhra (from Chitoor in the South to Vishakapatnam further North), it was not so much the dosa itself as it was the watery chutneys that annoyed me. In Kerala, the dosa remains a simple, quick meal, and not a hallowed tradition. But things look up in Tamil Nadu. The highways leading to Madurai have plenty of roadside stalls, which supply the weary traveler with huge and wholesome dosa delights (though some of them have the annoying habit of not grilling the onions well before adding it to a rava dosai). The Chettinad region serves average dosas, but my carnivorous friends swear by the prawn or chicken curry they have with dosas there. Chennai has plenty of dosa-spots, serving excellent “dosais”. However, the dosa plunges to its lowest depth in the two infamous canteens of the Anna University main campus, the ACTech canteen and the CEG canteen. This gift from the Gods is effortlessly reduced to something akin a soggy piece of newspaper by the ruthless assassins masquerading as cooks there.
Bangalore remains the Mecca for the dosa hunter. Three fine institutions continue a long history of serving the finest dosas that come out of batter. The first is the Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan near Balepet circle, over a hundred years old. Though this restaurant (set up by some proud son of Udupi) is more famous for its masala idlis, the tradition of serving dosas supreme continues to this day. It is one of the few places where one can consume Ragi dosas. Then, there is the “Mavalli Tiffin Room”, a Bangalore institution and a landmark in itself (not to be confused with the MTR fast food joints across the city). Their dosas are very good, but not great. Yet I was sold on them because their masala has plenty of cashew nuts, and dollops of ghee. But the finest masala dosa of them all is definitely found in Vidyarthi Bhavan. Buried amidst the busy lanes of Gandhi Bazaar, near Basavanagudi, this place remains the Temple of Food. For decades, the faithful have congregated here to obtain their daily passes to gastronomic paradise.
If there is heaven on Earth, it is this.