Dosa Hunt – a search for the best vegan South Indian crepe in NYC

Kal Dosai (savory pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils) – from Anjappar restaurant, served with condiments – coconut chutney, and milagai podi (powdered, roasted chilies, lentils, sesame seeds served with sesame oil)

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to view a short film ‘Dosa Hunt” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Usually, I hardly venture out to eat or watch movies outside Manhattan (just being honest here – there is so much to do in Manhattan!), but whatever I read about this short movie made me curious to check it out.   The movie is about a few musicians – some of Indian origin and a few unrelated to India – who venture out in NYC to find the best “Dosa” (or “dosai” as we Tamilians would say) – loosely termed as the vegan South Indian Crepe.  I say, loosely, because, it’s not sweet like a crepe or a pancake, but can look like one.  I would say its more like a gallete, because, its savory.  A dosa is made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils (it’s vegan, and gluten-free) and oil.   The movie had me curious, because, one, I was keen to know where I can get the best “dosa” in NYC and, two, the ticket price included a dosa and a samosa, catered by a restaurant that I had not been to.

It was a short film, only 22 minutes long, but was preceded by a few videos of each of the musicians / their bands.  The only musician that I recognized from this group was Vijay Iyer (a famous Jazz pianist, of the Vijay Iyer Trio).  The other group members included Anand Wilder (of “Yeasayer”), Himanshu Suri (of “Das Rascist”), Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabalu (of “Das Rascist” as well), Amrit Suri Singh (the film-maker), Alan Palamo (of “Neon Indian“) and Rostam Batmanglij (of “Vampire Weekend“).   I enjoyed music videos of all even though I was listening to them / watching them for the first time.  The video-game like music video of “Das Rascist” elicited the most laughs from the audience.

The basis for this quest for the best dosa is the underlying friendship among the group, hence the allusion to “Sholay” – a classic (or is it more cult?) Bollywood movie from the ’70s, and the video of  a song (“Yeh Dosti“) from the movie playing on the screen before the movie began.

Clip from Movie Sholay (Bollywood movie from the ’70s) playing on the screen before “Dosa Hunt” started

The hunt for the best “dosa”, may have been triggered when one of them mentions that he had a dosa at Hampton Chutney, but soon, they all set out in a van starting at Pongal in Curry Hill (the Indian restaurants clustered in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan).  Pongal is one of my favorite restaurants for authentic Tamilian / South Indian food  in NYC.  The film did not seem scripted, but was certainly hilarious when they discuss the basis for the rating of dosas (“negative”Bobby Jindals, apparently because, none of them likes Bobby Jindal), when one of them calls his mother in India to find out the local name of “drumstick” traditionally used in sambhar  (a tamarind spiced lentil stew that includes many vegetables) and she does not recall anything but “drumstick” (it is “murungakkai” in Tamil), and when they debate about whether white haldi (turmeric) is ginger or not.

The documentary does its part to educate the non-Indians about various South Indian dishes such as idly, uttappam, masala dosai, rava masala dosai, mysore masala dosai, milagaipodi (a condiment made from roasted red chilies, lentils, salt, and mixed with sesame oil – to accompany dosa), and sambhar , although it is likely to be too fast to comprehend for the non-Indians who are unfamiliar with these dishes.   The group goes out to the Jackson Heights area in Queens, to shop at the Indian Grocery store, Patel Brothers, to buy the ingredients that would help them recreate dosa and sambhar (if they were to make them from scratch).  Meanwhile, they also enter a video store to rent /buy DVDs of Bollywood movies – they pick up two movies – Sholay (about friendship) and Pyaasa (about a poet struggling to get his poems published) – very apt for this group of friends and musicians.  Soon after the video store pit stop, the group ends up at Dosa Hutt, near the Indian temple in Queens.  They declare that the best “dosa” they have had is at Dosa Hutt, a rating of several mangoes (Indian ones, of course)!!  The film also includes a few “behind the scenes” footage of how the dosas are made in each of the restaurants the group stops at.  The movie’s sound track included songs from each of the group members’ band.

The food for the movie was catered by a Chettinad restaurant called Anjappar.  I did not expect much from the food, but I was pleasantly surprised when I took my first bite of the kal dosai  (a smaller, fluffier variation of the regular dosa, but also vegan, gluten-free) – it was really tasty, soft, and delicious, much like the dosais made at home.  I rarely eat Indian food outside, because I have been pampered for years by the many cooks in my family (needless to say, my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts), so the food from any Indian restaurant can never compare with food prepared at home.  When I do feel like eating Indian food and especially South Indian food, I just cook it myself.  But after eating the kal dosai, I am tempted to eat at Anjappar. For those unfamiliar, the kal dosai, might look like an uttappam, except that an uttappam is made from highly fermented batter, while the batter for the kal dosai is just lightly fermented.  The smaller size of the kal dosai make it easy to transport – a critical requirement for the film maker to have the food catered.   I suppose the dosais made at home are small, driven by the size of the cast iron / iron skillet available, while, dosais made at restaurants are large, given the wide work surfaces available to make the dosais.  The samosa served was quite average – certainly not worth going to Anjappar for.

The most enjoyable aspects of this movie experience for me were:

  • Listening to Bollywood music at the theater before and after the movie – not that I cannot listen to it at home, but somehow it feels nice when its playing at a theater.  Most of the songs that I heard that day were from the ’60s and the ’70s (“Mere samne waali khidki mein“, “Yeh Dosti“, “Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko“), with the exception of one (“Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye” – from the ’90s)
  • Enjoying the best “kal dosai” in NYC – from Anjappar, a Chettinad restaurant
  • Sharing my experience on this blog!!

In case any of you are interested, I think the best dosais in Manhattan are served at

  • Saravanaa’s (or Saravana Bhavan) – in Murray Hill and in Upper West Side.
  • Pongal (in Murray Hill) and
  • Chennai Garden (in Murray Hill)
  • Anjappar (in Murray Hill, I can say this with confidence, after tasting the kal dosai at the movie) – to my knowledge, this is the only restaurant that serves the kal dosai in NYC – the kind closest to the home-made kind
  • Dosa Hutt in the movie is in Queens and I have not had the pleasure of eating at this restaurant to give you my feedback about the dosas here

Also, a heads-up, many restaurants make the dosais with ghee (clarified butter), so if you want a vegan dosai, make sure you ask for it, the restaurant will usually accommodate the request, especially if it is not too busy.

There are many Kal dosai recipes – see here for one.  The one I write below is from a very close friend (from Chettinad) of my aunt.

Kal Dosai recipe

Total Time taken:  12 – 15 hours

Active time: About 1 hour (for grinding) and 2 – 3 min per dosai

Ingredients (the first three are available in Indian grocery stores):

  • Idli Rice  – 4 cups
  • Black daal (go for the skinless kind – whole or split) – 3/4 cup
  • Fenugreek seeds (dried) – 1/2 teaspoon
  • Salt – 1/2 teaspoon
  • Oil  – 1/2 teaspoon per kal dosai

Ideally, sesame oil (not toasted), but you can use olive oil, or canola oil, or vegetable oil – depending upon what you fancy.

Steps:

To make the batter

    • Soak the Idli rice for 3 hours
    • Drain the water from the rice, and grind the Idli rice in a stone grinder until its very fine – you may need to use 1.5 cups of water (about 12 oz). Batter should not run too much, but should be thick and fall slowly – should take about 25 minutes.  (Am not sure if you can use a regular food processor in the US).  I use this one (available at Amazon.com – worth the $200 investment only if you make idli or dosai regularly)
    • Allow the batter to ferment 6 – 8 hours or overnight. In South India, this fermentation happens literally overnight with no special attention, because the ambient room temperature there is about 85F (above 25 C).  In the US, here is what I do (in summer and in fall, am yet to test this in winter).
      • As the rice is being ground, warm the oven – i.e., ‘Warm” Setting.
      • Once it is warm, turn the oven off.
      • Test the oven to check temperature – you should be able to place your hand inside without having to pull it out quickly, i.e., roughly 90 – 100F (i.e., 34 – 37C).  If you have a room thermometer at home, you may be able to use it, but please do not blame  me if it blows up inside your oven
      • Place the batter in a wide vessel with enough room above the batter (to allow the batter to rise upon fermentation).  Cover with Clingwrap, if you prefer to leave it covered.
      • Close the oven and turn on the oven light.
      • Leave overnight untouched.
    • Soak the black dal and the fenugreek seeds in separate bowls overnight
    • Drain the water from the black dal and the fenugreek seeds and grind for about 6 – 8 min with 4 – 6 oz water.
    • Mix the fermented rice batter well with the freshly ground batter of black dal and fenugreek seeds.
    • Add salt to the batter and mix well with a ladle.   Make dosais right away or for lunch or dinner.  You can leave the batter at room temperature if you are making dosais on the same day.  Else, you can leave it in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the dosais.

To make the kal dosai

    • Heat a cast iron skillet until very hot – a few drops of water splashed on it should make a few dancing bubbles and evaporate quickly.  Use a non-stick skillet if that is what you have.
    • Pour one ladle of batter and spread the batter as you would for a pancake
    • Use about 1/2 tsp of oil (ideally sesame oil) along the rim of the dosa
    • Cover with a lid for 1 – 2 min, so the dosa cooks in the steam built up between the skillet and the lid.  Not necessary to flip this over.
    • Remove from the skillet and enjoy while its warm – ideally, with the condiments -coconut chutney (available in Indian stores), or sambhar

Ready made Dosa / Idli batter

I am wary of using the dosa / idli batter from Indian stores here in NYC (Shri brand).  If you live in the Bay Area or in the Seattle / Redmond area, I believe the dosa / idli batter in Indian stores is great, particularly, the brand Shastha, although I have not used it myself.   Another easier route is to use the brand MTR for instant idly / dosai (available in Indian grocery stores and on Amazon.com).  The idlis from this brand are very close to the home-made ones – am yet to test the dosai mix.

Meanwhile, please tell me:

  • What is your best dosai experience where you live?
  • Do you make dosai from scratch or from a mix?
  • What is your tried and tested method to a successful dosai?
  • What is your favorite brand of idli / dosai batter or instant mix?

4 comments

  1. I checked with a friend I trust for NYC spots:
    –Tiffin Wallah for Dosai – http://www.tiffindelivery.us/
    –Vatan for Vegetarian Guajarati also came up- http://www.vatanny.com/
    It’s 6pm – I’m hungry!

    1. Agreesmd, Adam! Vatan for vegetarian – Gujarati – is very good. The portions are large and I am always filled up with just the appetizers there. Have not yet tried Tiffinwallah for dosa. Will do and will post my comments.
      Thanks

  2. Liked your article. We love the dosas at hampton chutneys…the avacados, olives and other vegetables they add make the dosas much more healthier and tastier. Ramesh.

  3. […] Dosa Hunt – a search for the best vegan South Indian crepe in NYC (notjustvegetarian.com) […]

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