Zen and the art of eating the (Mysore) Masala Dosa

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from San Francisco: Everybody has their own, unique kink. The kink may be disgusting to some, obnoxious to others, but to the owner of the kink, it is his trademark trait, the calling card of his personality, his USP. A brave few show it off; most sheepishly hide it from the world.

When the cell phone became a status symbol, my SWE-brother’s stated mission in life was to gauge the owner by looking at the size of the instrument. The smaller the gizmo, the bigger the a******, was his execrable line till, horror!, a New York Times reporter wrote a book using a similar analogy: the bigger the sport utility vehicle, the bigger the jerk behind the wheel.

An extrovert colleague, who shall go unnamed (wink, wink), would play a guessing game whereever we went. He would inspect the posture, clothes, spectacles, hairstyle, bags and shoes of those around him to arrive at their profession. If one of those happened to come and sit near us, he would strike up a conversation and ask point blank. (Hate to say this, Mr Smart was right many times.)

Collegial stuff like this might seem trivial and thoroughly judgmental in the context of churumuri‘s obsession with the “big picture”. But fun, harmless, time-pass activities like these reassure us that there is a life beyond corruption, secularism, communalism, casteism, criminality, elections and such like.

And it is only idiots who do not have any such idiosyncracies.

All this is by way of a preface for my own little kink: which is to watch members of the human species tackle the Masala Dosa on the sly, and to make mental notes of how they are likely to approach “similar situations” that they will unfold in life. (As you can see, I am couching my words to evade the stern editor!)

Of course, you might say that it’s not good table manners to watch other people eat. But, hey, it’s my kink, you can choose yours.

(Disclaimer: I do not have any interest in supervising the fate of the Set Dosa, Plain Dosa, Rava Dosa, Onion Dosa, Ragi Dosa, or any dosa any chef anywhere can whip up at the hands of aficionados. The only dosa that pulls my pop-psychological antenna up is the Masala Dosa.)

***

To me, the world is clearly divided into Masala Dosa-eaters and potential Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto both of them. (There are, as you will have no doubt noticed from your own culinary observations, no former Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto the Masala Dosa for that.)

There are two clear reasons why the Masala Dosa makes for such a rivetting visual experience, even if it sounds weirdly voyeuristic. One, the fold. Two, the aloo gedde palya—the “lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices”—which lies beneath the fold.

(In some parts of Andhra Pradesh, the masala of the dosa comes sacrilegiously separately in an open-top katori, like the chutney and sambar. And on Ibrahim Sahib Street in Bangalore, behind Commercial Street, Tamil families used to stuff the Masala Dosa with shavige (vermicelli) baath and some or the other rice baath. But we are not talking of the same thing.)

We are talking of the genuine article here: the Masala Dosa.

The genuine Mysore Masala Dosa gets even more interesting because there is an additional bit of suspense built into its wafer-thin architecture. Namely, the coating of red or green chutney on top of which sits the alloo-gedde palya. Like the girl in the picture (above) there are some, not many, who just cannot wait to see just what lies below the dark to golden brown crackle.

Two further caveats here. One, we are not taking into account the “Set Masala Dosa” where instead of one Masala Dosa folded on both sides, we have two smaller Dosas with a single fold. In some restaurants in Mysore, they serve palya in one and saagu in the other as if to heighten the suspense. And two, we are not talking of those silly pyramid-like vertical Masala Dosas that were the rage in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

So, by virtue of having watched countless Indians, non-resident Indians, and foreigners in several cities and countries dig into the “rice pancake with a lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices” in restaurants, weddings, dosa camps and other public settings, I believe I have the requisite authority vested in me by long years of fermentation, to decree that there are exactly five kinds of Masala Dosa eaters in the world.

1) Those who start at the top

2) Those who start from the bottom

3) Those who work at the sides

4) Those who pierce the middle

5) Those who open the fold

We could argue that all these five positions depend on the angle in which the dosa is placed. But, generally speaking, the Masala Dosa seems to settle down at a 30 to 45-degree angle in most plates, with a clearly identifiable top and bottom.

**

In my book (and I am unanimous about it!) those who start at the top of the Masala Dosa are mostly middle-aged men and women, and those older. These are the well-settled, organised lot, who have cracked the big mysteries of life. If they weren’t dealing with something so serious as eating a dosa, they would be sending off rockets into space. They believe in sequencing, they believe things must be done in a particular way, they believe the Masala Dosa must be eaten in a particular way. They have seen enough Masala Dosas to know what they will meet when they get in. And they have the patience to wait.

Those who start at the bottom are slightly younger, slightly more adventurous. These could be men or women. Young adults in their first or second jobs. They will effortlessly take a couple of bites from the bottom and won’t hesitate to break the sequence and try the top either. And then come back to the bottom to start all over again. There is no recognisable pattern. They believe it is still too early to decide either way. They will take it whichever way it comes.

Those who work at the sides of the Masala Dosa are usually, but not always, younger boys and girls either in love or on a fitness spree. They nibble tenderly at the roasted edges of the dosa, while they look meaningfully into the eyes of their partner or while they while away time. Each tiny crust takes an eon to melt in their mouths. This accomplishes two things for them. They spend the requisite time in conversation and they create the perception in their own minds of having eaten. Since the dosa is only incidental to their core objective, it is not unsurprising to see them leave midway.

Those who pierce the centre, delve into the middle, and wolf down the palya straightaway with the first bite are mostly young boys and teenagers. They have done the dosa in the past, they know where their sustenance for the tennis game will come from, they are hungry, and they get down to business without much ado. It’s a no-fuss relationship.

The guys who open the fold have little poetry in their hearts. They are matter-of-fact types. They know that the palya is just a small little thing in the middle. They know that if you start at the top or bottom and make your way in, there will be very little dosa left to deal with the palya. So, we might as well open the damn thing and spread it across. This demographic is also most likely to pour the chutney on top of the palya, and order a fresh katori of chutney before taking the first bite.

So, how do you do the Masala Dosa, and what does it say about who you are?

Photograph: courtesy BBC

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3 Comments »

  1. B said

    Masala dosas used to be our grp’s fav in my previous software company. It used to be delicious,spicy and very filling..good times..
    Since the food was so lovingly shared, u ate what was left of teh dosa after the combined attack of several hands 🙂

  2. Hmm, I love the fact that I belong to the Teenage Group, even after becoming a mom to a tween. Nice way of analyzing people. From now on……I must start observing people when they are relishing their fav masala dosa. Nice post 😉 –Rekha

  3. Achala said

    Nicely written:)

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