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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Look who’s hopped on to the great brand wagon!

SHRINIDHI HANDE writes from Madras: We are already used to Australian apples, Californian grapes and other more exotic fruits from foreign shores sporting a small, slick sticker, branding themselves against others. Buying them and being seen to be buying them has become a small matter of status and prestige.

Would we react the same way to fruits grown in our midst?

Roadside sellers on the outskirts of Pondicherry have started slapping a sticker on tender coconuts and toddy palms that they sell on ECR (East Coast Road). The label, in Tamil, advertisers the brand name of the coconut, and has empty slots for date, weight, and price.

That set me thinking: Can we trust such labels? Is this smart marketing to woo a new class of consumers—or just stupid imitation?

I can understand that if we do some kind of processing (cleaning, purification, packaging, preservation, etc) on a food item, to some extent we can justify branding them (for example, buttermilk). But just because you grew it in your own farm, with your preferred choice of fertilisers, plucked it from the tree, and brought it to the market (read roadside), can you justify affixing a sticker on a natural product and calling it “my brand”?

Is branding tender coconuts suppose to evoke “instant recall”? Will it bring a loyal set of consumers who go around looking for the same brand whereever they go?

Does it bring additional value to a consumer?

The Greatest Bottler up above doesn’t specify an expiry date for his products—so what date are they planning to mention there? Date of plucking from the tree? Or “best-before” date? Anyone with any experience in downing tender coconuts will be able to judge them by looking at the visible freshness of the fruit. (If there’re lots of wrinkles and dark spots on the surface, then it is over ripe.)

Ergo: dates don’t make much sense.

Ditto the weight of the coconut.

For most of the other fruits, measuring by weight makes sense but in the case of tender coconut, it is an irrelevant parameter. I don’t think there’s any mathematical relationship between the weight of the unit and quantity of water inside.

A visibly huge and heavy coconut can have an equally thicker shell and very little quantity of liquid inside while a small-sized one can be full of fresh and tasty water. So trying to reach at some conclusion based on weight would again fail.

In fact, it is extremely tough to predict the taste and quantity of tender coconut and coconut gravy. A vendor usually asks if you prefer to have only water or water with kernel (coconut meat). But even seasoned vendors cannot assure you that his pick will be 100% accurate, though by sheer experience he might manage to pick an appropriate one.

You could argue similarly for Toddy Apple.

The only advantage of branding, if any, is that it might convince certain customers (probably techies and international tourists, provided they are not much familiar with the fundamentals of tender coconuts) to believe they are going to have something of a better quality.

Photograph: Shrinidhi Hande

Cross-posted on churumuri

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Once upon a time, shortly after the lunch break

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: While the boys of churumuri let their tongues flap around for kodu bale and Kingfisher, may I, on behalf of the party of the other part, unwrap a small packet of sepia-toned memories, one of the simple joys of days long past: the humble haalu khova.

To the undying gratitude of my dentist Dr B.K. Chandra Mohan, my sweet tooth, all 31 of them actually, has since gone on to discover something netherworld about the Mysore pak from Guru Sweet Mart (Mysore) and the obscenely shaped gulab-jamoons from Bhagat Ram (Bangalore); about the dumrot from Ramakrishna Lunch Home (Bangalore) and the badam halwa from Ramya drive-in restaurant (Mysore).

(Feel free to pick your weakness and salivate here: badam burfi/ badushah / basundi/ champakali/ chiroti/ dharwad peda/ gajar halwa / holige/ huggi/ kadubu/ kajaya/ kheer/ kunda/ ladoo / mishti doi/ payasa/ peni/ rasogolla/ rasamalai / sajjige/ shira/ shrikhand / unde/ vobattu.)

While, those forbidden fruits of human toil have their own allure, the haalu khova is at the very apex of personal favourites for me, almost 30 years after I surreptitiously (and innocently) let one of them dissolve in my mouth in Ms Celine Rodriques’ class in the first period after lunch at Nirmala School in Vontikoppal.

(Sorry, Ms Celine, but we were popping a piece of paradise.)

Each one has one, but there were a few reasons why I fell head over heels in love with haalu khova.

a) Because it was not an organised “adult” sweet.

b) Because of its unbelievably low price.

c) Because it had stamp of “local” all over it.

d) Because it was such a cute, portable product.

e) Because there was a small tag of rebelliousness strung around it.

Like many “middle” middle-class families in the 1970s, my father too used to bring home a small packet of doodh peda every now and then from Indra Bhavan on Sayyaji Rao Road. And there was the odd packet of sweets that arrived courtesy of some maduve, munji or tithi.

But haalu khova was a different story. No cook ever claimed it was his speciality. No sweet shop shouted that it was world-famous for it.

It was made without fuss; it was sold and consumed without fanfare.

It was a sweet you bought from the Rs 20 that was your monthly allocation of “pocket money”. It was a sweet you bought (mostly) without your parents’ knowing. It was a sweet you ate off the street, off Jayamma‘s gaadi that was wheeled into 2nd main road, Vontikoppal.

Above all, it was a friendly sweet that wouldn’t give you away in class; it was so silky soft that it would melt without even your trying. And It was a sweet that you consumed while Ms Madhura and Ms Ponnamma were looking at the blackboard, giving you a bit of a cheap thrill, as the boys looked on in envy.

The families in Agrahara which (I later learned) put haalu khova on the gastronomical atlas of India probably didn’t know, and probably didn’t care, but in their own way they were making their own contribution to female emancipation every afternoon through their enterprise.

***

As memories go, there was nothing fancy about the haalu khova. It was light to dark brown, depending on which bylane of Agrahara it came from. It had no great shape or elaborate icing. It was just a small cube of what cookbooks call “whole dried milk” (khoya or mawa in Hindi) laden with sugar that in our time was precut into nine smaller cuboids.

But the real pleasure was in the geometry of its cottage engineering.

Every consignment of haalu khova was packed with absolute precision in butter paper, not a crease out of place. And then artfully tied with cotton thread, two rounds going this way and that way, with a small, seductive knot at the end.

Untying the knot gave the same pleasure that a diamond smuggler got while revealing his booty.

And untie we would after slipping in a packet or two into our skirt pockets after the lunch break, one little piece after another.

Long after our gang—Ashitha Shetty, Kavitha K.S., Kiran Shenoy, Manisha Modha, Preeti Attavar, et al had outgrown the haalu khova—I made my way one dark power-cut evening to the little lane in Sunnadakeri, where the old Iyengar’s Mess was situated, to see the place where the haalu khova was said to have originated.

A bare-breasted, cross-belted man sat on the jagli outside as he protected the “secret formula” like John Pemberton.

Haalu khova, he said, invented 61 years ago in that very home by his father Gopal Iyengar. Its original name was Delhi burfi. It was made to give the children of the house something more nutritious than the biscuits they craved. And the original packet, eight times the current size, apparently cost 3 paise.

A packet of four slices (in picture) today costs Rs 5. “But, remember, a gram of gold cost Rs 30 in those days.”

“One packet is enough to sustain you for three-four hours,” said Iyengar junior, who it turned out had opened the batting for RBNCC. “Javagal Srinath once gave an interview in the beginning of his international career where he said he had played entire matches on nothing more than a packet of our haalu khova.”

If it was good enough for Babu, it was good enough for us.

Photographs: Prashant Krishnamurthy

Cross-posted on churumuri

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Who slaughtered the unsung zero of Karnataka?

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: While Kiran Rao Batni was lamenting the birth of naan, malai kofta and chicken tikka masala as local food in Bangalore (Anna-sambaar to the American on the BlackBerry) ten days ago, I was silently mourning the death of an unsung ‘zero’ of Karnataka: the kodu bale.

The food fundamentalists of churumuri would like to believe that Bisi bele baath is the quintessential Kannada contribution to cuisine. In rare moments of modesty, they might even grudgingly nominate mavinakayi chitranna as the de facto delicacy. But permit me to strike a discordant note.

Kodu bale, to my dark, deep fried mind, is Karnataka’s asli gift to humankind—if you leave out Kingfisher beer.

(Together, of course, they constitute the most potent Improvised Explosive Device (IED) invented to soften up targets. Permit me to drop a name. I once gave a box of home-made kodu bales to my then favourite Pakistan batsman Salim Malik the night before an ODI and he quietly did what match-fixers in their moments of madness must have paid him millions to accomplish: perish for zero.)

But we digress.

Something has happened to the kodu bale—as Shamala atthe and Leela dodamma used to make it.

Let’s call it The Great Kodu Bale Konspiracy.

At home, the missus can barely find the time or the inclination, and even when she can, her much-acclaimed culinary skills desert her when she starts rolling the dough for the dark dynamite. The first set turns out all right, golden-brown and perfectly round. It self-destructs in your mouth as if to leave no trace for investigators.

And, also, because you have been panting in anticipation like a hungry dobberman, because you have Vijay Mallya‘s wicked brew for company, it tastes darned divine.

But, like with Sania Mirza, the problem starts with the second set. It’s wayward, erratic, inconsistent. There are lots of double faults. Undettered, the wifey has packed about a dozen or so in a Tupperware® box for the morrow. But the next afternoon, the full scale of the disaster unravels itself: yesterday’s scrunchy runaway winner has become a soggy, rubbery runner-up.

What melted in your mouth last night, now shows no mercy on your ageing molars. It wants you to work at it. It wants you to do a million push-ups with your jaws. It wants you to pull it apart.

Suddenly, your favourite snack has become khara chewing gum. A slave of your palate has become its master.

Out of frustration, I have pursued readymade kodu bales from Kodambakkam to Kuvempunagar. From the countless Iyengar bakeries, from the Mylapore maamis, from the Shetty angadis in Chamarajpet, from the Wal-Mart of fried stuff, the Thindi Mane. But nothing works, at least not for too long.

Either it isn’t spicy enough. Or the colour isn’t inviting enough. Or the texture isn’t right. Or the shape is disgusting. Or there is a faint rancid smell. Or, the ultimate health warning, the wife detects “Dalda”.

Subversive desh drohis try to push rave kodu bale on me. When chakkuli is being made, a couple of faux kodu bales make their way. But they have no effect on me.

Is this the first sign of OCD, I wonder: Obsessive Codu-bale Disorder?

Goodness gracious me!—I thought I would never say this—but is there something unsurpassable about home-made kodu bale? Is it really true, what Nina Wadia says in Meera Syal‘s sitcom: “Why go out when I can make it at home?”

Because of our time-strapped lives or because of all those executive health checkups, or because we have all been watching food shows where all they make is macher jhol and mutton jalfrezi, has the craft of making kodu bale deserted all our homes, all at once?

Maybe, in the smaller towns and villages, kids want them as much as they do pizzas and burgers. Maybe, mothers and grandmothers still make them the way they used to although I am sure that’s an undeniably sexist thing to say. Or maybe, this is just a personal disaster.

Permit me, therefore, a moment of privacy in public to mourn the death of an unsung ‘zero’.

Photograph: courtesy maneadige.blogspot.com

Cross-posted on churumuri

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If you’re what you eat, what does this make you?

At the Guo-li-zhuang restaurant in Beijing, guests can sample from an extensive and impressive menu of penises and testicles of every conceivable variety.

Stefan Gates of The Times, London, watched the chef show him a preparation:

“He enters holding aloft an eye-wateringly large yak’s knob. It’s about 45cm long, but thin, so thin. It’s been boiled gently and – I can’t believe I’m writing this – peeled, except for a hunk of foreskin still clinging on to the end. He cuts the thing in half lengthways with a pair of scissors. As he chops through the very tip of this impressive member, I feel an undeniable empathy twitch in my own penis and a bizarre feeling of nausea in my groin.”

Read the full article: China’s penis restaurant

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Anna-sambaar to the American on the Blackberry?

KIRAN RAO BATNI writes from Bangalore: At a long luncheon meeting with a couple of American visitors today, we did some serious overtime talking about food.

One of the guys started talking about food from Germany, Greece, Italy, Israel, China, Japan, and how he’s had a great time experimenting with the local culinary delights. He mentioned how he loves eating the local food wherever he travels, and how it’s one of the best parts of a job involving travel.

“Local food is actually the best and the safest option anywhere in the world,” he said. “You go to Japan, and you eat sushi. Period. Don’t even try anything else.”

Of course, what he said made eminent sense.

We all nodded wisely.

It took me a while to realise that in Bangalore, what we had ordered for lunch for our American visitors was naan, malai kofta (for the veggies) and chicken tikka masala (for the non-veggies), and that there was actually nothing local about any of those dishes. Wheat is not even South India’s staple cereal!

If local food is best and safest, every dish on the table was “local” to places at least 2,000 kilometers away from where we were sitting in Indiranagar.

I’d like to leave Churumuri readers to ponder the following: Why is Karnataka’s local food not to be seen in so-called decent restaurants? How have we so coolly accepted North Indian food as “local” food? Is wheat the real staple food of the bold, beautiful, rich and famous? Are rice, ragi, jowar bad linen to be hidden from foreigners to save embarrassment?

When will foreigners ever understand the diversity of India? Should they blamed if they think all Indians speak Hindi and eat naan, malai kofta and chicken tikka masala?

Is it wrong to talk about India’s culinary diversity? Should we be defensive about our own delicacies? Should we always take visitors to North Indian restaurants? What has happened to Kannadigas’ entrepreneurial skills?

Are we being ambassadors of Atulya Bharat when we forget our own culture, cuisine, and cereal?

Also read: Gutter chicken: The Punjabification of our food

M’am, can I have one more of these lovely balls?

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Cross-posted on churumuri

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When the heart pines for panneer butter masala

BANGALORE: A group of North Indian prisoners, most of them undertrials lodged in the central jail in Bangalore, have approached the High Court and demanded that they be served North Indian food, reports The Hindu. They claimed that South Indian meals had made them weak.

The six petitioners, two each from Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, claimed the food was prepared in unhygienic conditions. They said they could not order meals from the canteen as it had been closed since July last year, and wanted the jail authorities to either permit them to receive North Indian food or allow them to cook their food.

There are nearly 50 North Indians in the central jail in Bangalore.

Read the full story here: North Indians can’t digest jail food

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