We had idlis for breakfast today. Fluffy, pillow-soft idlis, punctuated by the spicy-sour-buttery taste of coconut chutney and spinach huli(sambar). The perfect way to start off a day.
And as usual, I was left to lament why on earth we couldn't have a dosa breakfast for a change - proper crisp paper dosas with all the accompaniments. I know why - none of us at my place - me or my maids - can spread the dosa with any kind of command that lets the batter know who's in charge and curl up crisply. No, we get blobs of fat dough connected with paper-thin wafers. But even more egregious is that I can't get a perfect dosa when I eat out either, no matter how famous the South Indian restaurant. And here's the reason - the accompaniments are at least half the pleasure of eating a good idli or dosa. And for some reason, no restaurant gets these to be as good as the home made variety, except for the potato masala. Recently Samar Halarnkar wrote a column lamenting that very fact.
I'm not sure where the current interpretation of coconut chutney arose - as a bland, soulless bit of fresh coconut, finely ground and topped off with a random tempering of curry leaves and mustard. It adds almost nothing to the mouthfeel of an idli or a dosa - the texture is as gravelly as a perfect idli and the blandness means that there is no added flavour. And then we get the watery soups aflush with tomatoes and coloured a lurid yellow-brown served up as the hotel version of sambar. The right chutney and sambar add a zest to every bite, they go together with the dosa/ idli like the proverbial horse and carriage. A bland or malformed accompaniment takes all the zing out of dosa-eating for me.
Why can't restaurants take a tip from the millions of homes all over South India which do such a great job of creating the perfect chutney and sambar every morning? A sambar which does not have a weird concatenation of vegetables thrown in - for example radish and brinjal, which no self-respecting housewife would cook together, but which restaurants apparently feel work well together. A chutney which has the right balance of spice, acidity and sweetness from coconut to explode on the palate and add interest to every bite? Sambar which adds a rich mix of the right flavours?
We tried. We bought a branded non-stick dosa pan from Prestige. The pan, after a couple of weeks, rose in the middle, as if emulating a poori, with the result that dosas began to burn to cinders in the center while the edges were pillowed like thattai-idlis. We tried Tefal non-stick pans. We tried making the batter at home. We have now retired hurt. So whenever the urge for a paper dosa gets too much, we wend our weary way to the nearest Sagar Ratna. I place my order, in the foreknowledge that the experience will fall short of my expectations. And I hope that someday, restaurants allow me to cart the perfect chutney and sambar from my home to go with their perfect paper dosas.
Either that, or that my mom reads this and gets inspired to invite us over for her homemade dosas and chutney!!!
My perfect chutney
1 coconut, grated
3-4 green chillies
1 lemon-size ball of tamarind, soaked in half cup lukewarm water for 10 minutes
Handful coriander leaves
1 tbsp roast chana
1 in piece of ginger, peeled
Salt to taste
Squeeze the tamarind ball to extract the juice fully, then strain. Grind all the ingredients together finely, adding a little more water if necessary. To temper, heat a little vegetable oil ( 1 tbsp) in a wok. Add mustard leaves and wait for them to splutter. Then toss in a teaspoon of urad dal and wait for the dal to brown gently. Add a handful of curry leaves and a pinch or two of heeng. Turn off the heat and pour over the chutney.
Serve with piping hot idlis or freshly made dosas if you're lucky enough to be able to make them!