Sunday, June 26, 2005

The quest for a perfect dosa

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.


Srikanth said...

There is one more thing that can be done only with a dosa, and few others: Varying its presentation style.

The simplest style (best for the home-made small-sized ones) maybe called the Half-Moon Fold, where you just fold it by half.

The second (as shown in the picture) is to roll it up. In this case, it can accommodate stuffing like the potato curry in the masala dosa.

I have also seen the Wigwam Style, in the form of a conical tent.

And don't you think it's दॊसा? It is the Sanskrit words ending with the longer vowel "aa" that become "ai"-ending in Tamil, and vice versa. E.g., Seetaa <-> Seetai, mallikaa <-> malligai.

Anonymous said...

greedy child :)
actually in Hindi, it is 'dhosa' sometimes even written as 'dhonsa' in the more gujju places - and it is always - "ek dhosa maaro" for 'make a dosa'
my favourite in bgl is jainagar kadambam for masala dosa - but I havent tried VB, so maybe the next time I am in bgl!
and there is a dosa plaza here in vashi which offers a mindblowing 137 varieties of dosa - some of them too offensive to my madrasi sensibilities to even mention here...

Sunil said...'re absolutely should be दॊसा (dhosaa).

Charu.....I like Kadambam, but somehow I never found it to be great. It is satisfying.

My mom-in-law is a far superior cook :-))

ecophilo said...

Nostalgia, nostalgia. Like the forgotten aroma of a long left in the cold coffee, Bangalore has only nostalgia to offer. It is very nice to (half) moon about dosas(they really are my favourite), but dosas be damned, we are in a chutney day in and day out in the traffic in Bangalore.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I don't know about the Seattle area, but here (NoVa) you can get the dough (mava (sp) ) in the India grocery stores. It is very good, and I greatly prefer making it at home than the restaurant version (I don't like too much grease). My favorite way of eating dosai is to eat it with Navrattan Korma. I know that isn't traditional, but then it my preference.

Question: is the Moong daal dosa the same as pesseret (sp) ?

Also, my mother-in-law makes a very nice dosa out of toor daal called adai.

Sunil said...'re right, there's more chutney in B'lore's streets than even in its zillion eateries. :-)

Michael.....we get dosai mavu here in the grocery stores as well. But no matter what you do, it's impossible to replicate the taste of a Vidhyarti Bavan dosa :-)

I don't really know what a pesseret would be like.

But adai is a very special Tamil delicacy.....though it looks like a dosa (fried, flattened batter), its really quite different, with coarse mavu, and greater thickness. So too is an uthappam, which is made thick, and not crisp. A whole world of flat, fried south Indian "breads"!
The adai my mom makes is one of my favorites......and I like to eat it with honey, though most people have it with chutney, or "molaga podi", or jaggery/ghee. It's also something you'll never find at a restaurant.

Anonymous said...

A very nice blog .Makes me hungry and reminds me of your MIL's wonderful chutney & dosai!!!

Srikanth said...

I think what Michael is referring to is the pesarattu, an Andhra dish similar to the adai. I do not know the details: I am not too technical about food... I just like to eat!

ashvin said...

Dosais are great. I don't think I've had them in Karnataka but the ones I've had in restaurants in tamilnadu are generally really good.

I agree with your opinion that people in Kerala don't know how to make them (or pronounce them --- they call it "dosha"): but that's because they're too busy mastering the art of making the appam. The ones with the spongy center and crisp outer layer (like here). They're best eaten with chicken stew but they should be pretty good with a vegetarian equivalent I'm sure.

Sunil said...

Aappams are great too....with vegetable stew (or aviyal or something like that)....but they're not a dosa :-)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I'm glad somebody mentioned aapams. Love 'em, especially in the Konkan Cafe at the President in Bombay. Chef Solomon makes them with toddy, for the right fluff and the faint sour tang.

Dosai ... growing up, I was told Woodlands in Chennai makes the best, but I was quite disappointed last year.

And I must confess a weakness for cheese dosa at Gupta Brothers.

Finally, doesn't anybody else appreciate the timing in fermenting the batter just long enough so that it tastes good without going rancid?


Sunil said...

JAP...timing of fermenting batter is CRITICAL!! Which is where the dosa makers of Bangalore, Mysore and Udupi score highest. They take pains to have that aspect right.

Woodlands is (IMO) quite's just got a huge Tam Brahm clientee who swear by used to be good in the 60's or something.

Now they make papery, soggy, salty dosas...a disgrace.

Anonymous said...

First time here ; I'm living in France .The crepe is normally eaten with jam or with sugar.They call the salted one made of buckwheat flour "galette de sarrasin".
But none of them matches up to the dosaas we ate at the IISc campus in the late seventies; in those days Bangalore was a real garden city with plenty of picture houses

Anonymous said...

dosa is also called 'artu' in Telugu. And yes, pesarartu made from green gram is an Andhra speciality. It rocks!

Anonymous said...

anybody tried making dosas in bloody german weather? the batter refuses to rise right?

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Try not washing the urad dal too much. One quick swish through water is enough(I googled and found that urad dal has a lot of yeast that lets the dose maav rise). Then warm the oven upto 200F and switch it off and keep the dose hittu inside it. Keep it on a big plate so that it keeps the oven clean in case of an overflow. Alternately, try and keep it inside a microwave oven. do NOT turn it on with the hittu inside :-). It seems to do the trick. You can also use the same ideas to set yogurt.

Anonymous said...

Put it in a oven with the oven light on for 4-5 hours or boil water and put in microwave with batter...:)
my wifes tricks..

Anonymous said...

Speaking of best Dosa in India...

Vidhyarti Bhavan is good
Pai Restaurant (Double Road) is good
Ganesh Darshan Dosa Camp is amazing
I agree Woodlands sucks - it used to be good 20 years ago...
Ullas (MG Road under Symphony) is my favorite because the sambaar is top notch.
Shanthi Sagar (on CMH Road - not the others) is a fantastic Dosa too

Best Dosa - Head to Sreerangapatnam on route to mysore - everything fro Sada, to paper, set dosa, uthappam is fantastic... there is one place on the main road. I don't remember the name

I need to go get some right now...


Anonymous said...

for dosa lovers one can try the some really good dosas in janata hotel, malleswaram 8th cross...

for ghee soaking treats, we now have the davangere benne dose, originally from davangere, but y not bangalore too...the best is in N.R. Colony.

Anonymous said...

Vidyarti Bhavan, Udupi Krishna Bhavan, 'Dil dhoond tha hai, Phir wohi phursat ke raat din'

Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi said...

Brindavan Hotel and Coffee House on M.G.Road, Udupi Krishna Bhavan and Malabar Lodge in Balepet, Vijay Vihar in Chickpet, and Vidyarthi Bhavan in Gandhi Bazaar are my favourite places for eating out.

Of the lot, Vidyarthi Bhavan scores ten out of ten for the Masala Dosas that are crafted by expert hands in half moon fold, with oozing melting butter, crisp n thick outer crust with soft inner, stuffed with rightly cooked potato masala, perfectly accompanied by a lake of spicy green chutney with a hint of mint, always take you on a heavenly trip to fantasy land, and makes you forget your worries and pains and leaves you smiling in contentment!

One is not enough for a dreamer like me! Many a times, I go to Bangalore juust to visit all the favourite Restaurants and Cinema Halls that I used to frequent during the early eighties, and if I miss Vidyarthi bhavan, my trip is incomplete!

The dosa maker deserves Nobel Peace Prize for this!

Anonymous said...

Udupi Shri Krishna Bhavan has opened another outlet, Udupi Krishna Bhavan, at Koramangala ( on Jyothi Nivas College Road). The food there is great as well.It is a must visit

Anonymous said...

This is in reply to one anonymous commenter about what its called in Telugu.

First, the word is "aTTu" not "artu"

Second, an aTTu is a generic word for many kinds of desi eggless pancakes( I don't know a better word or phrase to use. Saying an aTTu is a geneic word for many kinds of dosas is weird!).

For e.g,there's the pesaraTTu, there's the minapaTTu, and there are aTTus you make with atta and rice flour and hazaar other types.

Therefore, a dosa is a dosa in Telugu. An aTTu is the superset of the dosa.



Anonymous said...

Anyone tried a mysore mylari dosay? It's a very soft vareity (I believe they add extra "avalakki/poha") and it melts in the mouth.

I haven't seen this vareity served anywhere else in India (or outside for that matter).

Anonymous said...

New Haven, CT

I dunno abt best dosas, but the one I can vouch for was from RBG canteen in IIT Madras; which was a staple diet for 4 years...... I miss their special masala dosas which were heavnely for 8 rupees...

After coming to the US, I have been trying all kinds of methods to ferment the maavu in cold cold new haven....maavu placed next to electric heaters usually work.... or u can always make karachai dosai.....easier version...but i actually like the soft fluffy version of dosai made from homemade maavu as opposed to the crunchy karachai dosai......

Nice blog on dosais...

Anonymous said...

very nice blog, folks...but what about here in SoCal? anybody out there know of any good dosa joints for us los angelenos? or at least close by?

Anonymous said...

I've only ever had dosa in Kerala... the Kovalam Hotel had an interesting mix of chutnies and the like with it which was a joy every morning... got taken to some place off MG Road in Thiruvananthapuram which served the most *enormous* Paper Dosa... the Muthoot Plaza (also in TVM) was somewhat second-rate in my opinion.

This thread has made me very hungry. Is making Dosa from scratch particularly hard? Problem we have here (in Somerset, UK) is inability to get the ingredients easily... might be easier to order a mix from simplyspice or similar.


Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi said...

Hey Vidyarthi Bhavan rules!

Balepet Krishna Bhavan remains undisputed King!

Peasarattu in Andhra or Hesrubele Dose in Manipal, are healthy cousins of the Rich Dosas of Bangalore, but still relished by veterans!

It takes a clean tongue, two clear nostrils, three tenners in your pocket, and a forethougt to decide where and what to eat!

Afterall, Bengalooru is THE OORU for Dosas!

Anonymous said...

Dosas are hopless in Bangalore. The sweet sambars really kill.
The best dosas are from Tamil Nadu the home for dosas.

Anonymous said...

Bangalore dosas are the best, and chutneys are yummy. try them in adigas or even MTR

Anonymous said...

no where in the world you can get dosas as you get them in our bengalooru

Anonymous said...

All I can say,try the benne masala dosa at Sree Sagar(used to be called as CTR)located next to the Malleshwaram grounds.You will forget all other dosa joints.

Anonymous said...

It is a pity I only found this today when I am at home in England - last week I was in Bangalore and could have visited some of the recommended places! The masala dosas at the Leela Palace in Bangalore are good (as you would expect) but not exceptional - but the sambar they serve with their masala dosas is interesting - it is sweeter and less hot that most, but very well-flavoured. I have often wondered if it is possible to make a good dosa starting with rice flour, gram flour and yeast, rather than the whole grains. Has anyone tried it?

vinay shivakumar said...

I somehow always felt that sambhar kills the taste of a good dosa...

I remember one of the best dosas i had eaten was at a very unlikely place - REC surathkal canteen . I dont remember what it was called - probably "open dosa" . It was a normal sized dosa spread wt red chutney anf a big dollop of potato curry on it. Unlike the normal masala dosa it was not folded and served , but opened out

g said...

Half-breed Indian girl here in San Francisco - was sadly missing my favorite South Indian treats until I found the following:
- Udupi Palace in Berkeley
- Kennedy's Irish Pub/Indian Restaurant in North Beach
- Dosa restaurant at 21st and Valencia in the Mission (a bit upscale and fusion-y, but nice ingredients and atmosphere
I tried to make Dosas at home, but our foggy SF weather is not conducive to proper batter fermentation.

Anonymous said...

You are crazy. Kerala has some of the best dosas you can find anywhere. You just have to go to places that have more of a Tamil influence, Palakkad, in particular. Tamil influence yes, but definitely Kerala. Try the Ashok Bhavan in Sultanpet, Palakkad and then get back to me.

Anonymous said...


I am a SF bay area resident and currently in Bangalore. My TODO list is mainly visiting restaurants. I am slowly getting through my list of hotels.

MTR - yep, visited it. Won't go there again. The food is not exceptional, wait staff need to dress and act better.

Vidyarthi Bhavan - better than before. The place has been done up and suitable for spousal visit now :) The slightly thick, crisp outer and soft inner, perfectly golden dosa with hot chutney is something I salivate for on a regular basis in the US! The thin crisp dosa with utterly tasteless masala that HSB or Udupi serves there is a joke compared to the VB culinary perfection.

Brindhavan - did lunch and plan to once again. I have no idea whether they make dosa or not, sorry.

Ganesh Bhavan - good dosa, made the way I like them.

Udupi Krishna Bhavan - visit pending.

CTR - visit pending.

Anonymous said...

I am thrilled to see this blog and the comments. I have no doubt that the Bangalore dosa is the best... and Vidyarthi Bhavan and Udipi Sri Krishna Bhavan and Malabar Lodge serve the best dosas ever! I also love the saagu dosas you get in Udipi Sri.. and Malabar which you also get in Janardhan Hotel on Kumara Krupa Road...

I also like the MTR and Chalukya dosas...

all to live for!


Anonymous said...

To support fermentation:

One tip someone offered was to avoid using chlorinated water when making dosas or iddli. I think one has to bring water to a boil and then let it cool to drive off the chlorine. cold weather, putting your bowl of batter wrapped in a towel in an unlit oven might help--just paste a note to the oven door so that you dont or someone else doesnt forgetfully turn that oven on. I destroyed a glass bowl that way--ugh!

Finally, and this is just a guess, Ive fermented chana dal and mug dal batters quite nicely by adding either yogurt or live culture buttermilk. (If using buttermilk, do NOT purchase a brand that contains citrate).

Hope this helps...

Some US friends of mine love the dosas at Udipi Palace in Berkeley, California. Had no idea that is how that restaurant began.

Thanks for singing a Bhajan to the Dosa Deity, Sunil.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, Great post on Dosas. I intend to use some of this information in a booklet i plan for the benefit of non south indians. you will of course get a mention as resource. Hope its ok with you.

The Prince of Insufficient Light said...

best dosa i've had is in central tiffin rooms malleswaram....benne masale....people stand next to the tables, peering down at you, waiting for you to be done so they can take your place. ah but who cares?....what a dosa.....truly the best in bangalore, vidyarthi bhavan's standards are not what they used to be...i heard it changed ownership some time ago and after that things havent been the same...but its still better than the average dosa, but you have to try CTR, I think they have achieved the perfect dosa.

Girish said...

Dear Sunil - I love this entry on your blog. I have read and reread it many times. Partly because it is very well written and rich in information, but also because I have professional interest in food and cookware. Could I use part of this blog entry in a booklet on Dosa we are planning? It will be distributed free with our new Dosa Tawas which are oval shaped. please get back to me on my email id - Mukund, MD, Nirlep

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irodov707 said...


Been in B'lore for 26 years. Have tried almost all the dosa joints. I must say MTR and Dosa Camp are special(There's also this quiet place on one of the galli's near MG Road called Hotel Brindavan as someone pointed out.. zimbly too much I zzay!). But the best dosai's I've had are still in Tamil Nadu. The coconut chutney in Kerala hotels are a let down. For every other coconut-based food product, Kerala hotels rock! The Sambaar in Udupi hotels are a tad too sweet for most Tamilians except this one. :) The Sambaar in Tamil Nadu is an altogether different concept. I love all kinds of Sambaar's, so I don't let that hinder my love for the dosa/dosai. First pre-requisite to be a wholesome dosai lover is to like all kinds of Sambaar/Chutney. Life can be a lot simpler after that. :) Somebody earlier pointed out Palani(or Pazhani). Bang on! The one time I did go there, I was floored by the dosai's. This brings me to my conjecture. The best dosai's are made in the temple towns of Tamil Nadu. There's this hotel(dunno the name) overlooking the Tirvunannamalai hill. I think it's near the bus-stand. The dosa's there have been my all time favourite. I must also mention Mantralaya(Andhra Pradesh) for one of the most delicious onion-uthappam's I've ever had. Though this is not in line with the blog, I feel the best roti invention from Karnataka is the Akki Roti. Some of the best Akki Roti's I've ever had were made in the Darshini hotels of B'lore(For eg. the one on Nrupathunga road) and the rest were made by my aunt. Instant heaven! Thanks for this awesome writeup on Dosa's. My friends were asking for proof that Dosa Camp is worth the trouble it takes to get from Yelahanka to Jayanagar. Thank you. My job's done. :)

Anonymous said...

basavaraj M said, on April 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm
Guys if you are genuinely foodie, go to cubbonpet 31st cross, ask for chikkann hotel and try the dosas their you will feel that the dosas available their are the best in my opinion. But you should be between 6am and 10am because later than that you may not get dosas to taste. Also try dosas at vidyarthi bhavan, gandhi bazaar, udupi krishna bhavan, at balepet behind majestic theatre. Sorry you may not get any around these places. If you are at any time travelling to mysore try dosas at mylari hotel at nazarbad, very close to busstand, I am sure you will relish the taste.