A pancake of fermented rice and black lentils that is served alongside a piquant vegetable curry and creamy coconut sambar, dosa is south India’s favourite snack. Where the delectable crepe came from, is however, rather more ambiguous. Appetites at the ready, we go in search of South India’s best dosa.
It’s the perfect combination of sweet, sour and spice. A pancake of fermented rice and black lentils that is served alongside a piquant vegetable curry and creamy coconut sambar, dosa not only tastes fantastic, it’s rich in protein and carbohydrates, and is praised for sustaining a population.
Essentially a snack food served for breakfast and dinner throughout South India, (rice is served for lunch, the main meal of the day), dosa has been feeding generations for millennia. The first known references appeared during the 6th century AD in the Sangam, a body of poems from Tamil Nadu. But its origins are as disputed as the number of varieties- from big, crispy and flat, to short, stout and fat. Some say dosas came from Tamil Nadu, the dry flat plains in the country’s southeast. Others say Mysore, the old royal city in the state of Karnataka. Kerala, India’s lush southwest corner, also lays claim to the title. Origins aside, dosa has ranked amongst my most favourite foods for years. Plotting a trip through South India, where each county, town and even village has their own version, my husband, Ewout, and I resolve to hunt down India’s best.
Our first stop is the former French colony of Pondicherry, a small town on the Coromandel Coast, which was established in 1673 as the capital of French India. Pondy, as it is affectionately known, was one of only two French outposts in India (the other, Mahe, is in Kerala), and remained under French rule until 1954. Even now it retains a strong Francophile ambience: butter-coloured mansions intercepted by splays of hot pink bougainvillea huddle in between whitewashed cathedrals whose multi-coloured stained glass windows sparkle in the midday sun. Cafés offer pâté and bouillabaisse stews with locally caught fish and freshly baked baguettes and in the early evening, the town’s folk gather on the breezy promenade to stroll and gossip.
We check into the newly renovated Maison Perumal, a Tamil mansion with 10 guest rooms set around two open courtyards and ask the small hotel team where India’s best dosa comes from.
“Kerala”, declares the Keralan-born general manager, chuckling coyly.
“Tamil Nadu,” says the Tamil chef, solemnly.
“Mysore”, added the waiter, who was also born in Kerala.
To sample Pondy’s best dosa, they point us in the direction of the Hotel Surguru, a cookiecut three-star accomodation nearby. While it may not win any awards for décor- a nondescript basement diner with booth style tables and a herd of stern, chubby waiters- every table is filled with locals dressed in their Sunday best. Ladies’ arms tinkle with bangles, their black glossy hair braided with fresh flowers. Men sit solemnly in crisp white shirts tucked into tailored navy pants.
The menu contains more than 20 varieties of dosa, including some rather obscure ones, like the lacklustre vegetable-filled French dosa, in tribute to Pondy’s colonial past. The Rava onion masala dosa, a net-like crêpe cooked with onion and whole peppercorns and stuffed with a creamy potato curry fares much better. But it’s the bizarre paneer dosa, a flat crispy dosa with a north Indian curry of soft cheese tossed in butter curry gravy, which comes up trumps.
Mansions of Chettinad
Our next stop, Chettinad, lies 300km southwest, a seven-hour drive across dusty flat fields where women in rainbow coloured saris tend to the crops while their men watch over flocks of sheep. Chettinad is the tribal homeland of the Chettiars, a clan of bankers and merchants who made their riches ferrying teak, lacquer and precious stones around Asia during the glory days of the British Raj. Funnelling the profits home, the Chettiars built mansions; stately homesteads of British iron, Burmese teak, Danish glass and intricate doors carved into a medley of Hindu Gods, French soldiers and Victorian women (as a mansion was as much a statement of social success as it was an imitation of style). It is estimated there were once around 90,000 mansions spread across Chettinad’s 60km radius. Requisitioned during World War II, and unable to etch a living in Tamil Nadu’s infertile heart, the Chettiars then left for the commercial centres of Mumbai and Chennai, and their mansions were left to crumble.
Hoping to save some of the mansions from their crumbling fates, a handful of hoteliers have started renovating and converting them into hotels. Among the pick of the bunch is Visalam, a 15-room art deco beauty with a central courtyard on the main street at Kanadukathan.
Dropping our bags, we make our way to the kitchen, where the team of cooks are preparing Chettinad Chicken, a rich curry spiced with star anise and dried flower pods that can be found in restaurants from London to Los Angeles. I find the cooks at Visalam tend to be a bit heavy-handed on salt and asafoetida, a herb native to Iran that smells like sulphur when raw and like leeks when cooked.
But there is no denying the fabulousness of the experience; alongside the chicken and fish curry, there are five different vegetable dishes, plus a handful of chutneys, dahl, yogurt, rice and pappadams, all served on an emerald green banana leaf.
The next morning we rise to the dish we have travelled to see: dosa. Here they are cooked flat, but not crispy, and with a dusting of tingly chutney powder.
Old city of Madurai
Our next stop is the sprawling and thunderous metropolis of Madurai, which at 2,500 years old, is one of the oldest constantly inhabited cities in India. Madurai is known for its Meenakshi-Sundareswar temple, a moody stone temple which the city is built around. It’s even better known for its food.
Madurai’s culinary claim to fame is a hearty mutton dosa, which has a thick spongy base of egg and fermented lentils that is topped with spicy ground meat. I am keen to discover this for myself, but it’s only lunch time and dosas aren’t available until dusk. Instead we head to Murugan Idli, a threadbare canteen that started as a roadside cart 40 years ago and now even has a branch in Singapore. It’s sensational: the steamed cakes of rice and black lentils that arrive on a banana leaf for IR20 (S$0.55) are impeccably fluffy and soft, the quartet of chutneys- coconut, tomato, coriander and mint- all perfectly zesty and spicy.
That night we hail an auto rickshaw to navigate Madurai’s frenzied streets filled with buses, pedestrians, cows, cabs and bullock carts to take us to Simmakkal Konar Kadai, who I am told serves the best mutton dosa in town. Plump and springy, the mutton kari dosa here reminds me more of a frittata. But it’s extraordinary; the combination of the fermented rice and lentil batter, egg, chilli mutton and coconut chutney receives a dosa distinction from us.
We would like to stay in Madurai and discover more of her lip-smacking culinary delights, but I am due in Cochin, a city on the far side of the 2,400-metre high Western Ghats, the formidable mountain range that runs down India’s western seaboard, separating the thirsty plains of Tamil Nadu from the lush gorgeousness of Kerala. It’s a journey like many others in India: one which seems like a pinch on a map, but as the road is strewn with potholes, hairpin corners, mist- and at the top of the Ghats, two-metre wide roads zigzagging between the manicured tea plantations of Munnar- it takes us the whole day.
Later that evening we pull into Fort Cochin, a natural port that was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the local chief for helping wage a war against a neighbouring king. The Portuguese established an outpost here; legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama even died here. The Dutch, arriving in 1683, later captured the town. A hundred years later, it fell to the British. Laid back and unruffled, with superb colonial, plus Arab, Syrian, Christian and Jewish architecture, Fort Cochin is a dandy place to while away the time.
The town hosts a glut of perfectly acceptable cafés and restaurants serving local fish curries, many that have sprung up over recent years, thanks to growing tourist crowds. But for dosa you have to make your way to the adjoining new city of Ernakulam and Pai Dosa.
A rough and ready backstreet canteen, Pai Dosa has an astounding 36 varieties of dosa on offer, varieties hailing in from all corners of the country, plus more than a few madeup. There is paper roast, masala, rocket, bulls-eye, coconut milkshake, or the four-foot Bhiman dosa. The restaurant is run like a factory line: one person issuing tokens for cash; the next huddling the tava, a cast iron plate used to fry the crêpe; the last dishing out condiments. Production is so brisk they can churn out 30 dosas in three minutes.
We start with a tomato roast dosa, which is crisp, nutty and perfectly balanced. The paper dosa gets the thumbs down for being too greasy. The navadhanya dosa which we find on the specials board, wins our hearts back with its liberal slathering of tongue tingling chilli.
My conclusion? The mutton kari dosa from Madurai won my heart. But then a chef in Madurai told me they are nothing compared to the dosas from Mysore.
Maison Perumal: 10 rooms in a hundred-year-old house with cheerful, welcoming staff. Doubles from S$170, including breakfast. www.cghearth.com
Hotel Surguru: S.V. Patel Road. www.hotelsurguru.com
Visalam: A superbly renovated art deco mansion with 15 rooms furnished with antiques. Doubles from S$300, including some meals. www.cghearth.com
Heritage Madurai: 35 rooms and suites set in peaceful gardens; some have private swimming pools. Doubles from S$110, including breakfast. www.heritagemadurai.com
Murugan Idli Shop: West Masi Street. Tel: +91 452 234 1379
Simmakkal Konar Kadai: Near Thanga Regal Theatre, Sivangangai Road.
Malabar House: This 1755-built Dutch mansion is one of India’s finest mini-hotels. The 17 rooms all have antiques and art pieces. Doubles from S$230, including breakfast. www.malabarhouse.com
Pai Dosa: Pai Brother’s Lane, MG Road, Ernakulam. Tel: +91 484 237 4879