Meditations on the dosa
Unlike the stodgy and invariable idli, the adaptable and responsive dosa is emerging as a genuine desi fast food that is perhaps most representative of Madras...
WHICH IS the truly representative food of Madras(is)? The idli or the dosa? Most people would plump for the idli. Indeed, idiomatically the idli wins out. We invariably speak of idli-dosa, never of dosa-idli.
The idli has also inveigled itself into becoming something of a cultural symbol. When I was at college in New Delhi, every time a plump South Indian girl passed by, discourteous male students would whisper: ``Iddi-lli".
But I will be contrarian. And make out a case for the relatively disregarded dosa.
In one of his many clever essays, the political philosopher Isiah Berlin said that great conceptual systems were created by two kinds of intellectuals: hedgehogs and foxes. A hedgehog is someone who has one big idea, one organising principle under which all his thought is subsumed. A fox on the other hand has many little ideas, which make up a whole. Plato and Dante were hedgehogs. Shakespeare and Goethe were foxes.
Applying Berlin's distinction to the idli-dosa question, it is easy to see that while the idli is the creation of a hedgehog, the dosa must have been fathered by a fox. An idli (like the unfortunate South Indian girl who went by the same name during my days at college) is one big thing. Invariably round and plump, consistently bland and dumpy.
Dosas, however, are many things rolled into one (pun intended). They can be plain or stuffed. They can be laughably small (the splendid banana dosas at Park Sheraton's Dakshin are not much bigger than medallions) or formidably large (an honestly-sized family dosa should always extend over both sides of your table).
Most often, of course, dosas are your regulation, standard-issue, newspaper-like roll-up. But they can also come in pretty much any shape you can imagine. The Saravana Bhavan at Peters Road does one which stands bolt upright and is shaped like a cone. ("The Sorting Hat in Harry Potter!'' squealed a niece of mine as she saw one being ferried to the adjacent table.)
Dosas are different things to different people. Do-Shah to the Malayali, Do-Sigh to the Tamil and, oddly enough, the phonetically-perfect Do-Sa to the Punjabi. Even language, as it were, seems to acknowledge their adaptability.
Allow me to take a moment off to meet a likely challenge from stubborn idli-enthusiasts who must have already worked up an intellectual sweat about my dosa-discourse. Idlis can be many things too, they are likely to say, taking recourse to the four or five kinds that find a place in any menu.
But surely this objection is worthy of nothing but sheer intellectual contempt. The Kanjeevaram idli, after all, is nothing but an idli with some spices thrown in. A cocktail idli is nothing but an idli dropped into smoking oil. And a rava idli is...well...a rava idli. These idlis, in other words, are hardly different animals. Just hedgehogs trying to dress up as if they were foxes.
Moreover, at the end of the day, variety is all about numbers. Idli-advocates are urged to visit Sangeeta's Dosa Diner at C.P. Ramaswami Road to understand what true assortment is all about. Fifty varieties in all. Stiffened with ghee, shredded into podimas, basted with chilli paste, laced with curry leaves, plain and or'nary take your pick, it's all there.
Not really all there, of course. For there is more. Dosas, after all, come in a myriad of other forms. You can pack them with panner as any good Punjabi will tell you. You can load them with kheema ask any good old-fashioned carnivore. If you are unconcerned about cholesterol levels, you can mix them with egg. You can even drizzle cheese on them. Imagine doing that on an idli yeccchhh.
Viewed in an inter-personal context, dosas are accommodating, amenable, responsive, hospitable.
Located in a secular matrix, they are truly pluralist. And in literary terms, they are capable of weaving numerous complex narratives under a common theme.
We have no information whether Sir Isiah, who was extremely suspicious of large, inflexible and authoritarian world views (and thereby of many hedgehogs) actually hated idlis. He is no more and so we will never know. But I'd like to think of him as a dosa man.
Restaurants in Chennai and elsewhere have woken up to the versatility of the dosa. Until fairly recently, the `plain' and the `masala' constituted your restaurant staple with the odd rava or pesarattu thrown in for variety. Now, they come with the most surprising and unexpected of fillings.
For instance, random and seemingly anomalous stuffing is the very USP of the Dosa Diner off Greames Road which is just round the corner from Just Round The Corner. The truth is that wrapped inside a dosa, anything goes.
Well, almost anything. I must confess to having eaten the Kashmiri dosa a couple of times and found them a touch too cloying. But who knows? If you live somewhere near the Pir Panjal and are sold on nuts and dried fruit, this could just be your thing.
The point is that unlike the stodgy and invariable idli, the adaptable and responsive dosa is emerging as a genuine desi fast food. The emergence of dosa diners are a part of this story. But the bravest and most innovative attempt of trying to put the dosa on the fast food track was a failed one.
A few years ago, a Chennai-based company invented a dosa-vending machine and parked them in various places in the city.
Dosa King wheezed and whooshed while you looked into its glass exterior to see its various arms and joints move to pour out the dough, squirt on the potato mix and fold the object into...voila...a small, but perfect, masala dosa.
At a paltry five rupees, you could have one served up in a paper napkin and eat it with a choice of tangy bottled sauces. I confess to being totally addicted to the machine.
Visits to Spencer's Plaza have never been the same without it. It is difficult to understand why Dosa King failed to sustain. The only plausible reason is that it was an idea far ahead of its time.
A few final words on the idli-dosa face-off. Dosas win on three other important counts. They are physiologically less challenged (being flat as opposed to round), ethno-politically more correct (being brown as opposed to white) and culturally less disrespectful (catch anyone go `dosa' when an `idli' passes by).
Surely, it is the dosa and not the idli which deserves to be the representative food of Madras(is).
I rest my case.
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