How to make thosai – or it is dosai?

I always wanted to know how to make thosai. Or, as my Indian friends from India (not from Malaysia) would say, dosai.

Living in Petaling Jaya in the ‘80s, this was one of my favourite dinners, if someone was driving over to Oldtown: wafer-thin “paper thosai” large enough to wrap your head in, crisp and golden with a filling of masala potato.

However, friends would always say, “Nah… too much work.” Indeed – why make it at home when you can go out for a nice fresh one, cooked by a specialist. So we always ate shop thosai, unless friends made us some at their home. But this was rare. Generally they would pop over to their local Indian shop for it too.

Recently, my friend Unaicy kindly provided a recipe. Making it wasn’t so hard – it just came down to a matter of timing.

 Ingredients:

  • 3 cups rice flour
  • 1 cup urad dhal – sometimes called black gram; Indian specialty shops usually have it. It’s a small white lentil with black skin.
  • 1 tbsp leftover cooked rice
  • Salt – quite a lot, about one scant tsp per cup of flour

Method:

Soak the dhal for two or three hours – or overnight, for convenience.

Drain and put in the blender with the cooked rice. Blend, adding water to make a smooth paste, till it goes a bit frothy.

Mix the rice flour with water and the salt to make a thin paste. Put this in the blender with the dhal paste and blend just for a few seconds to mix the batter. Cover and leave the batter to stand in a warm place (in our kitchen, that would be anywhere).

Now – here’s where the timing comes in.

If you have soaked the dhal overnight, you could mix up the batter in the morning, leave it all day and make your thosai for dinner. If you soak the dhal during the day, you could mix up the batter before going to bed, then make thosai for breakfast.

The point is that the batter has to ferment for some time, and I find that eight hours or so in this climate does the trick. Sometimes I’ve tried to slow down the fermentation by putting it in the fridge, because I wasn’t ready to cook it just then. Other times I’ve left it to stand longer, when I had more batter than I could use. Either way, the results were not great. Left in the warmth too long, it would bubble up too much. The resulting batter was super-airy and fell to bits when you tried to remove it from the pan. Or, it would hardly ferment. It’s better to just stick with the programme.

When you’re ready to cook, ladle out the batter so it spreads thinly over a hot griddle or frypan. Pour the batter out in concentric circles, if you can manage it (that’s how I’ve seen the experts do it).

What I haven’t worked out yet is: are you supposed to flip this, like a pancake? Or serve it up just like that, lightly tan underneath and white on top?

The white puffy appearance reminds me of how thosai from the Indian shop used to look in my childhood. But then the super-thin “paper thosai” became popular (or maybe I just discovered it at that point) and now any thosai seems to come crisp and golden. Maybe there was a some kind of advance in cooking technology, or maybe that childhood memory is a delusion.

So – is thosai meant to be flipped?

Either way, flipped or unflipped, I love the slight fermented flavor. In theory, you could eat this with almost anything I’ve even seen people add grated Kraft cheese. The classic combination, though, is with vegetable sambar and coconut chutney, which I’ll blog next time.

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