Food: AN ODE TO TOSHAI

Celebrate the delicious kaleidoscope of the eternal 'madrasi' dosa in a million reincarnations across the Indian landscape of taste, delicacy and insatiable elementary desires
Ratna Raman Delhi

Toshai amma toshai
Naiyil shutta toshai
Arisi mavum ullundu mavum kalandu shutta toshai
Appavikku naalu, ammavukku moonu, akkavikku rendu, thambikku onnu!

(Amma, I want toshai, ghee-roasted toshai, roasted toshai made by mixing rice and urad batter. There will be four for father, three for yourself, two for big sister, and one for the little brother)

This popular and oft-repeated childhood ditty was accompanied by the drawing of imaginary circular toshais on the extended palms of little children. The refrain ended with the fingers walking up the child's arm and enveloping it with a hug. While a squealing or giggly child looked forward to the promised toshai, the (dosa-making) simulator, usually an older woman, moved towards the kitchen to turn out yet another delicious meal of lentil crepes.

The rhyme records for posterity the basic ingredients which go into the making of dosas; the arisi (rice) and the ullundu (black gram lentil, completely divested of skin, and pale cream in colour) is ground into maavu (wet batter). It documents the possible number of dosas made in a nuclear family and their distribution on the basis of some ancient BMI calculations. Coincidentally, the same number of dosas can be made out of packaged, freshly ground batter, marketed currently for busy households in metropolitan cities, so the toshai ditty should be around for a while.

Toshais have featured on culinary agendas for a long, long time. The ancient granite aaatukallu (grinding stone) has now been replaced by new-age, electrically powered stainless-steel drums, but a substratum of stone still forms part of the new grinding machine, ensuring traditionally prescribed stone-ground textures of rice and lentil. The batter once ground is allowed to breathe for an hour and a concave toshai kallu (iron skillet) is greased and placed on the flame. When the skillet is sufficiently warm, batter is poured into the centre and then spread out into a large circle. Amazing feat of geometry this, unaided by any compass, just a clenched fist and a swivelling arm wielding a flat, deep serving spoon and moving in concentric rounds to create a two-dimensional edible circle. 

On grandma's kerosene stove, toshais, eight or nine inches in diameter, were regularly turned out on the skillet. Soft white toshais, stacked up beside the stove on a serving plate, were carried out to the dining area where everyone sat cross-legged in front of individual plates. Coconut chutney or sambaar or, famously, molahapodi, were the singular accompaniments to the dosas. Of all these, the molahapodi was a perennial favourite. Stored in recycled Horlicks glass bottles, this combination of dry roasted lentils ground with red chillies and toasted sesame seeds, provided an amazing meeting point for the palate. 

Eating a toshai is a skill perfected over years of practice. One edge of the toshai is pressed down by the thumb, while four looped-over fingers provide back-up assistance to detach a morsel in a semi-twirl tactile movement that users of forks and knives remain unacquainted with. The extricated piece, dipped into the heady molahapodi mixed in ghee or gingelly oil (undoubtedly the most underrated oil in India) is then transferred to the mouth and the sequence continues till the replenished food supplies are eventually exhausted.

Toshais were once major participants in tiffin-box barters at school. One side of each toshai was smeared with molahapodi and oil, or lemon and mango pickle, and was folded twice over to sit snugly in a small stack inside the tiffin box. When the box was opened, releasing the toasted aroma of rice, lentil and spice, eager enquiries from nearby desks filled the air.

The reign of the dosa in north India was made possible by the march of young men from the south who arrived in New Delhi in the 1940s, found lodgings at the Madras Hotel in Connaught Place, and the South India boarding house, Ramanujam Mess and Srinivasan Mess in Karol Bagh, and moved on with their lives. 

The messes catered to the influx of South Indians by serving them food laced with flavours from homes in the southern states of India. These original foster homes of the dosa were the new breeding grounds of heterogeneous community among the Andhraite and the Malayalee, the Palghat resident and the Iyer and Iyengar. All these new residents were collectively dubbed as "madrasi" by the rest of India residing in Delhi. In turn, all of them were collectively referred to as "Punjabis" by the equally insular South Indians.

From being a comfort food for the homesick South Indian, the toshai expanded its food quotient over the decades, and went public in the age of domestic gas cylinders, reinventing itself as the dosa. No longer quaint "madrasi" cuisine, the dosa has forged stable alliances with all manner of "non-madrasis" and commands national standing as the Masala Dosa. It has its own special performing stage; the heavy, oversized, flat iron griddle.  

Dosas have travelled the length and breadth of the county, and can be eaten in tiny wayside cafeterias and at street food corners all over India. You can find dosas on Shimla's Mall Road, at Midway resorts between all premier cities, at the canteen in Jhunjhunu's Rani Sati temple, at Vaishno Devi and Tirupathi, and in Saharanpur and Palaghat. In fact, the dosa is a tangible presence in cities across the globe and on popular international cooking shows.

Today, innumerable masala options come enveloped in dosas. The potato-onion-tomato stuffing, the dosa's constant companion, was arguably invented by commercial eateries, before homes adopted it. An eatery in RK Puram in south Delhi introduced the 'diplomat dosa' - comprising a generous addition of carrots and beans to the original potato masala. Yet another eatery smeared the undersides of dosas with green coriander or red chilly chutney before smothering it with potatoes. 

The D-School canteen at Delhi University probably owns a patent for 'Mince Dosas', wherein a moderate amount of meat replaces the regular potato masala. The imagination and the palate have now stretched to incorporate cottage cheese, egg, fish and chicken fillings into the dosa shell. 

Truth be told, the dosa is an indigenous alternative, far more nutritious than the pancake and the crepe. It lends itself easily to a range of stuffings. A soft dosa roll made of lentil and cereal, with sweet or savoury fillings, provides a superior combination of carbohydrates and proteins besides being easy to make and consume. 

Having evoked the dosa, one needs to place on record for posterity the range of variations that form part of the orthodox dosa chronicles. Dosas are made in various combinations of cereal and lentil within little-known kitchens. Channa and moong dal in full or half measure often replace the urad component. Dosas are also made with rice and okra, with wheat flour and jaggery, with rice and coconut, or wheat flour and onions, and in as many combinations as the continued ingenuity of its traditional and experimental chefs can display.

It is possible to grind all the millets that we have reworked into mainstream cooking in recent years, such as the ragi, bajra, nachni, jaun, red rice, rice flakes, brown rice and oats, with urad dal, and turn out delicious dosas that score high on nutrition as well. 

A combination of rice flour, semolina, white flour and buttermilk forms the basis of the famed Rava Dosa for which Sona-Rupa at Janpath in the heart of Delhi was justly acclaimed in the 1970s. Rava Dosas operate rather in the manner of accomplished maestros holding court. Embellished with a garnish of cumin seeds, onions and green chillies, their fragrant ghee-coated flamboyance is known to induce compulsive consumption even among taciturn eaters. 

Nowadays, the dosa is a team player. In the age of collectives, it has its own public relations unit. A dosa at Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, Delhi or Singapore is accompanied by a retinue that boasts of sambaar, molahapodi, and offers tricolour temptations in green coriander, white coconut and red tomato chutneys.

The dosa has several rich provincial cousins - the adai, the patral and the pesarat - all of them originating south of the Vindhyas, and made with coarsely ground lentils and a smaller portion of rice to which finely chopped onions, spinach, carrots and cabbage can be added. In the 1980s, the adai and patral were stellar performers on a popular menu at Dasaprakash, located at the Ambassador Hotel in Sujan Singh Park. When Dasaprakash shut down, these culinary ambassadors were forced into untimely superannuation within private homes. 

The adai, made by coarsely grinding four portions of different lentils with one portion of rice, besides ginger, chillies and asafoetida, is a high-protein food that improves with fermentation and is traditionally hand patted on a hot skillet. Little holes are incised with a tiruppi (a flat spatula-like turning implement) on the body of the adai and filled with oil, which seeps down to coat the undersides of the adai. Adais, being thicker than dosas, must be evenly cooked on both sides, before they can be consumed. 

The patral lentils are usually intermixed with a generous sprinkling of chopped cabbage. The pesarat, native to Andhra Pradesh and made mostly from whole green moong dal, has a body and a flavour that is further enhanced by the upma filling that substitutes for the potato mash and is eaten along with sambaar and coconut chutney. The famous Andhra Bhavan canteen on Ashoka Road in Delhi still serves this for breakfast.

Uttar Pradesh is also home to the moong and besan chilas, that share raw material affinity with the adais, pesarats and patrals, although the inclusion of small quantities of rice in the coarsely ground adais and patrals gives them a texture, flavour and crispness that lingers on, memorably. The nicest chilas that Delhi offers today are to be found at the food stalls at the baada on the Ramlila Grounds during the Dusshera festival. Stuffed with a chunky paneer filling and accompanied by sharp chutneys, these are undoubtedly one of Purani Dilli's most fulfilling and nourishing fast food items.

Despite innumerable household recipes for making dosas, some perennial favourites remain. There is, for instance, the oothappam - a thick, plumped-up dosa with abundant vegetable toppings and no cheese - which is poised to take over as the new-age, low-calorie anti-pizza option. There are also the chirpy 'Set Dosas', which always arrive in a group and work as bite-sized nibbles. Dosas can be eaten soft or crisp, shaped like a roll or like a giant upside-down waffle cone, spreadeagled on a plate or folded demurely in half. 

Lace-edged, soft-white, bowl-shaped aapams (mutant cousins of the dosa) are formed by pouring batter (made with rice and coconut, and tempered with fermented coconut water) into hot, greased, deep iron chattis (pans) that are swirled around by their ears and then covered with a lid. This steam- and oil-cooked delicacy, native to Kerala and Sri Lanka, can be wolfed down with stews made of vegetables, whole lentils and meat, fish sambols and egg curry. 

Aapams make great desserts when paired with steamed bananas, jackfruit jam or honey. Their melt-in-the mouth rice base exponentially surpasses the pleasure quotient mapped by French crepes and American pancakes with chocolate, maple or honey toppings. Delhi's best aapams are served at the Habitat Centre and the Sagar Ratna restaurant at Hotel Ashoka.

The 'Butter Masala Dosa' and the 'Family Dosa' are perennial favourites. Anointing itself lavishly, the first offers seduction on par with the Rava Dosa. One illustrious ancestor from this lineage, the Davanagare Benne (benne in Kannada means butter) from Karnataka is now a Wikipedia icon. 

The Family Dosa makes it imperative for the entire family to assemble around it, endorsing the belief that families which eat together, do stay together. Made across a rectangular iron griddle, this humungous dosa invariably draws people out into the public sphere since normal households do not possess the equipment requisite to its creation. It is, therefore, an important cultural marker in an age where differing meal schedules are followed by different folks.

Yet, for a small private individual seeking sustenance on a solitary train journey, the unwrapping of a banana leaf packaged dosa with potato masala and coconut chutney, from any of south India's dimunitive railway stations, releases a cloudburst of savoury expectation, hunger and nostalgia that is always adequately assuaged.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: