I don’t know if “cooking block” is technically the right term to describe the cooking equivalent to “writer’s block,” but regardless, I’ve been suffering from it. I had ideas, but I wasn’t interested in any them. Not the recipes currently on “The List” or any of the suggestions Pretty Boy and Bearface were quick to present. Bearface seemed to think I just needed a bigger challenge as opposed to inspiration, so he kept suggesting more outrageous and lavish dishes to attempt. Meatballs? Lobster? “Real tornados?” I had to look that last one up (it’s something akin to a chimichanga apparently). I rifled through ingredients, recipes, cookbooks, the vast interwebs, looking for something to spark my interest. I cast my net wide, but came up with nothing. I attribute the block to school which, as it dominates my energy and interest, takes away energy and interest from all my other activities.
And ironically enough, it was school that presented me with the inspiration I was looking for. I am a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class along with three other graduate students. Three single, Indian men. We TA for a professor in the department (and my research advisor): a single, Polish man. The contrast between myself and these four men is stark and apparent, especially with regard to cooking. When it came time to grade the first midterm of the semester, in the midst of my cooking block, I suggested a potluck.
While obviously I would bring a pie, I wanted to bring more. I got into a rather heated discussion with the Argumentative Indian TA, because I claimed that every culture has a tortilla and every culture has a potsticker. I explained: whether they are called potstickers or gyoza or samosas or tortellini or ravioli or pierogi or varenyky or empanadas or pasties or dumplings, every culture has a carbohydrate wrapped pocket. And whether they are called tortillas or crepes or pancakes or biddeena or chapatis or naan or matzah, every culture has a flat unleavened carbohydrate. When I switched to the most ambiguous carbohydrate-wrapped-pocket and flat-unleavened-carbohydrate, the arguing stopped and he brought up dosa.
Dosa are thin fermented crepes made from rice and lentils, a staple in southern Indian where the Argumentative Indian is from. The key, he told me, is in grinding the rice and lentils to the correct consistency as well as the fermentation. And there it was: a challenge. I was interested and had an occasion, and finally: inspiration! My cooking options were even further constrained because the Quiet Swearer TA is vegetarian. With that restriction and the challenge of dosa, I decided to make vegetarian apple pie (with a lard free crust) and black lentil and eggplant stew and hopefully dosa but I made no promises.
For dosa, I started with proper research. I read stories of relocated Indians’ failed dosa and idli attempts (idli is a steamed bun with similar batter). I started with this dosa recipe which gave a lot of good information and tips regarding fermentation. And I was off to the Indian grocery store to add two new varieties of rice and one new variety of beans to my growing collections of rice and grain jars.
I followed the recipe but used my trusty food processor to make the batter since I don’t have a wet grinder. I know a food processor will not grind as finely as a grinder or mill but dosa batter should be slightly gritty, and I was fairly confident it would suffice. Which left me to my biggest worry: the fermentation. Room temperature in India is completely different than room temperature in Minnesotain the winter. And the wild yeast in the air and on my hands that should ferment dosa batter are completely different than in Indian. I didn’t trust there to be enough wild yeast floating around to adequately ferment my dosa batter. I found many conflicting suggestions about artificially introducing microbes to the batter: wild yeast off of organic grapes, baking yeast, yogurt cultures, purest who said just wait longer. I choose to supplement my batter with what I had on hand: two spoonfuls of cultured almond milk (a non-dairy yogurt substitute). I constructed a little warming house next to an electric heater and kept the batter close to 90 degrees F (the ideal temperature for dosa fermentation) for about 8 hours.
In the mean time, I made a lard-free apple pie and spicy black lentil and eggplant stew and waited. Not much changed in the 8 hours, but I still had hope there was something growing in the bowl so I left the batter to sit at winter-Minnesota-kitchen temperature (that’s about 65 degrees F in my house) overnight, approximately another 10 hours.
When I got up early the next morning and checked the dosa batter, it was beautiful! It had increased in volume significantly and was frothy with a pungent sour smell. Promising results which I hoped pointed towards successful dosa. It was about 22 hours total from when the batter was ground to when I started cooking (I didn’t start cooking until a few hours after I got up and first squealed with joy over the sourness of my batter). Thinning the batter with water, I began frying. With two pans going at once, I quickly accrued a stack of dosa. I cooked a batch until they were just browned and were fairly soft and another batch that were well done and a little crisp.
They had a very unique taste and were quite chewy and I liked them! Authentic or not, I though they were really good. But luckily, so did my fellow TA’s. Along with pie, stew, and dosas, we ate butter chicken, vegetable sambar, coconut chutney, and basmati rice.
So dosa were a success and I got over my cooking block. I guess one way to prevent school from sapping the energy out of my other hobbies is to integrate my hobbies into my school life, though food is much easier than say knitting or dancing to mix with school. I think dosa might have to start being a weekend tradition and I know a lot of Indian graduate students who would not complain.
So here it is: Dosa Recipe with modification for Minnesota Winter
1 cup sona masoori rice
1 cup idli rice (also called parboiled rice)
1/2 cup whole skinned urad dal (also called black gram)
1/2 tsp methi seeds (also called fenugreek seeds)
1 tsp salt
Additional fermenting agent
Oil for frying
1. Soak the rices together in one bowl and the dal and seeds together in another bowl, both filled with an excess of water overnight. The rice should soften and the dal should swell. I read that using untreated water (like spring water) also can help with fermentation because of the chlorine in tap water. I used Minneapolis tap water and apparently strong enough cultures so my batter fermented but I might switch to untreated water if I was going to try to grow wild yeast.
2. Scoop the dal out of the soaking water with your hands and place it in a food processor. Add about a ½ cup of the soaking water to the dal and process continuously for a minute or two until the mixture becomes smooth and fluffy. Remove the mixture to a large bowl.
3. Scoop the rice out of the soaking water with your hands and place it in the same food processor. Add about a ½ cup of soaking water and process for 2 to 3 minutes until the mixture becomes well ground. The mixture will still have a gritty texture but the granules will be small. Remove the mixture to the same bowl as the dal.
4. Mix the two grains together with the salt and choose a fermenting agent of choice. Introduce cultures to the batter by leaving it uncovered in the open, scraping the white powder off of the outside of untreated grapes, add a scoop or two of yogurt, sour cream, or buttermilk (but make sure it actually contains live cultures), or add some instant, brewers, or wine yeast. All methods except the cultures from yogurt, sour cream, or buttermilk will be yeast cultures which I believe is more authentic. Cultures in dairy and dairy substitute products are bacterial cultures which yield a slightly different fermentation. I used bacterial cultures the first time around with success and will try yeast next and then maybe grape wild yeast and update the recipe with my findings. My hunch is that commercial yeast will impart a stronger yeasty flavor while the bacteria just made the batter sour. I have no experience yet with wild yeast. More water should be added to the batter if it will ferment longer. Less water is needed for a shorter fermenting period.
5. Keep the batter warm for several hours to jump start microbial growth, then let stand warm or at room temperature to continue fermentation. Total fermentation time will depend on the amount of fermentation desired and the length of the jump start period. I love all things fermented (sourdough bread and pancakes, pickles, kim chi, sauerkraut, yum!) so I really allowed for fermentation in my batter: 6-8 hour jump start then 16-18 hour fermentation.
6. Once the batter has adequately fermented, dilute it with enough room temperature water to make a thin, pourable batter. Heat a nonstick skillet or griddle over medium high heat a wipe with a small amount of oil or butter. I reapplied grease about once every 3 to 4 dosa. Ladle the batter onto the hot pan and spread it thin. Cooking time can range depending on preference. For softer dosa, remove them from the pan as soon as the batter is cooked and looks dry. For crunchier dosa, cook longer until browned edges appear. I did not get any good or better results flipping the dosa over to cook on the second side, and I had a hard time keeping the longer cooked ones actually crunchy instead of hard, I think because of the high moisture content in the batter.
Makes approximately 40 six inch round dosa.
03.04.12 – Wild yeast update
Last weekend I made another batch of dosa. I planned on using instant yeast to culture the batter, but when I went to add the yeast, realized I didn’t have any on hand in my kitchen. So I left the batter to ferment without adding anything, hoping to culture some wild yeasties. I soaked the rice and lentils at (Minnesota winter) room temperature for 24 hours then ground the grains into batter. I placed the batter in its incubator at around 90 degrees for another 24 hours without adding any bacterial or yeast cultures. After 24 hours, the batter more than doubled in size, was very light and fluffy, and had a faint fermented smell. All definitely indicative of something growing in the bowl. So in answer to the question of whether or not wild yeast can be cultured out of dry, cold Minnesota winter air, the answer is yes they can be!
But when I cooked the dosa, the wild yeast had no particular flavor. The texture was similar to the first batch though I think I didn’t grind the batter as finely as the first time, which meant a slightly grittier but still quite acceptable final product. And though the texture was good, I was really disappointed in the flavor. I really liked the strong fermented flavor in the first batch of dosa I made, and the wild yeast just didn’t add enough to the dosa. If only I lived in San Francisco and could culture some of the famous yeast that makes San Franciscan sourdough bread so amazing.
I will continue to experiment with different cultures for fermenting dosa, but my hunch is yogurt bacteria will be my top choice in terms of fermentation and flavor. I would also like to try and use wild yeast in other applications, maybe that don’t necessitate as much flavor as dosa. I’ll continue to brainstorm on that one!