They’re a light, crisp (or sometimes deliciously spongy) vehicle for pretty much any filling. They’re gluten-free. They are a make-ahead marvel that can help you have breakfast or dinner on the table in half the time. And because they are fermented, you might find they suit your digestion better too.
We’re talking about dosa. This rice and dhal pancake - which can be a huge, thin, crisp cylinder or a smaller, softer version, often wrapped around a spicy potato filling - has been a much-loved Indian dish for thousands of years, but the rest of the world is getting on board too, and it’s not hard to see why.
Research into the effect of fermentation when making dosa and idli (little steamed pancakes also made with a rice and dhal batter) have shown that the process can increase B-group vitamins, break down starches, improve digestibility and, ahem, decrease flatulence-causing oligosaccharides.
And of course, it adds flavour. Dosa are delicious!
Another reason to get on board the dosa train: putting the batter in the fridge slows down fermentation, which means you can keep a batch on standby, ready to use for several days.
One of Australia’s leading kitchen fermentation experts, Holly Davis, included a recipe for a fridge-friendly dosa in her most recent book, Ferment. “Fermentation is an ever-present force of nature and with just a little understanding, beneficial microbes can be employed to predigest and transform all manner of ingredients into vital additions to our diet,” she writes in Ferment (read more of Holly’s thoughts on how fermenting helps body and brain here).
Holly’s dosa batter – which can also be used to make idli – can be stored in the fridge for up to five days.
Melbourne chef Gary Mehigan is also a big fan of dosa.
“Every visit to India I look forward to my regular dosa filled with potato bhaji, coriander and coconut chutney,” says the Masterchef star and host of the A Plate to Call Home podcast, who shares the highlights of one of his many visits to India.
Having discovered dosa in India, Mehigan now makes them at home, too.
“Because the batter is a living thing, you have to treat it carefully,” he tells us when we chat to him ahead of the start of Far Flung on Food Network. “If it’s a warm week it will bubble like crazy and the opposite if it’s cold, which will change how the dosa turns out. Popping the batter in the fridge just slows the whole process down and gives you control of the fermentation, so it’s good for a few days. Remember to take the batter out of the fridge half an hour or so before you use it so it has a chance to warm and create those lovely tiny little bubbles.”
And while a flavourful potato bhaji remains his favourite filling (get Gary's recipe for dosa with potato bhaji here), dosa are very versatile. As well as being wonderful with all sorts of curries, "if you start thinking outside of the box and outside of India, then anything you would serve with a classic French buckwheat crepe or bruschetta works brilliantly. After all they are light and crispy vehicles for anything that works … think Spanish jamon and fried egg or mushrooms, soft oozy gruyere cheese and spinach, hot smoked salmon and crème fraiche, or hummus, slow cooked spiced shoulder of lamb with onions and sumac…”
You can play around with the ingredients in the dosa itself, too.
How tempting do these quinoa, red lentil and brown rice dosa by Libby at Silver Linings Kitchen Look!
Those were inspired by Sarah Wilson’s recipe in Simplicious, and so are these red lentil and amaranth “queen of gut health breakfast pancakes”:
Now if you’re thinking “I love the idea of fermented dosa – but after reading all this, I’m hungry now! I don’t want to wait”, there are plenty of unfermented versions.
Got a few hours? Try Anjum Anand’s rice-based version.
“As dosa take a long time to prepare, I started making this quick version from a ground rice batter. While they don’t have the unique flavour of authentic dosa, they make light and crispy envelopes for this lovely, spiced potato filling. To add more protein to the dish, I add more lentils to the potatoes than normal,” she says of her easy masala dosa.
Want something even quicker? This chickpea flour and plain flour version only needs to sit for 15 minutes before cooking:
With some forward planning, though, you can easily have digestion-friendly dosa all week: the actual hands-on work is simple, and then it’s just a matter of letting time take care of the fermentation. Make a batch on the weekend and another during the week, and you can have dosa all week. Whenever you want to cook some up, just take some batter out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature while you prep your filling, then you’re ready to cook, fill, roll and eat.
Here's another fermented dosa recipe, a southern Indian recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's Spice Nation. These home-style pancakes include funegreek seeds in the batter.
Whichever version you decide on, a good flat pan is one of the secrets to a good dosa.
“Dosa are irresistible but it took me a bit of time to get it right when it came to making them at home,” Mehigan says in Far Flung. “One of the keys was finding a large thin iron pan that I seasoned to within an inch of it life so it was shiny and non-stick. That way when the dosa is peeled off the bottom of the pan it’s perfectly crisp and glossy.”
Very few dishes come close to the mix of the light crispy, slightly spongy dosa with its mild fermented tang, filled with the most glorious spicy potato stuffing and served with spicy sambar and coconut chutney.
Dosa, or Thosai, originated in South India. It is traditionally a breakfast dish of a fermented crepe with a spiced potato filling. This full-flavoured, low-fat and high-fibre option includes dried spices for a healthy meal.
A dish originating with my grandma, fed to me by my mum as a child and still fed to me by my wife. The tradition continues! I hope to train my future daughters-in-law to make it as well (mastery of this dish is a prerequisite for my sons’ marriage too). It is a simple preparation that can be conjured up in minutes. It is a fuss-free snack for the evening "tiffin".