I think the first thing I fell in love with in Kerala was the masala dosa.
The one inarguable fact about the masala dosa is that like all regional specialties, everybody likes theirs a little different. Some people like the dosa – a pancake made by smoothing rice flour batter into a long oval on a griddle – thin and crispy, while others like it thick and soft. Some like masala – the potato mixture hidden in the middle – to be garlicky and spice-heavy, while others prefer the beetroot-infused mixture made famous by Indian Coffee Houses across Kerala. Then there are the condiments, the little metal ramekins of sambar and coconut chutney, of which there are hundreds of recipes – only one of which is 'just right' to the aficionado.
I actually had my first masala dosa in Bangalore. I was staying with a couple I'd met through CouchSurfing, and on my last morning with them, they brought in masala dosas from a street vendor near the apartment block. My God, it was delicious! I ate with relish, even mopping up the last of my coconut chutney with inexperienced fingers. At the end of it, I tried to push some money into Eva's hands to show my appreciation, but she laughed and said it was okay – they only cost 25 rupees each.
25 rupees! Barely one New Zealand dollar! A tasty, low-cost, nourishing meal, best suited for breakfast but acceptable for dinner, and with a touch of flair about it. I was in love.
Unfortunately, it took a long time until I was able to sample one again. The hotel I frequented before catching the 7:30am shuttle to work didn't serve masala dosas until 9, so for a good two months I had to be content with idli and poori. These two South Indian breakfast staples were good up to a point, but they became dull after a while. They didn't have the ongoing appeal I craved – idli were too bland, poori too oily and unhealthy... but I hadn't yet visited Cafe Mojo.
Mojo, on the ground floor of Technopark's Gayatri building, quickly became my favourite place to eat. It isn't merely that they served masala dosas; these masala dosas were like the Socratic form of masala dosas. The dosa was crispy and tasty, good enough to break bits off and eat on their own, and the masala was filled with peas just the way I like anything savoury to be filled with peas. The sambar was light, but not too watery, and the coconut chutney didn't have too many chillies. In short, they were perfect.
It became another joke in the office. Whenever I stood up to go out, rather than asking me where I was going, my friends would simply say, “Mojo?” For a while I was going there both before and after work, so besotted was I with those delicious dosas. And the days when the regular chef was off duty, and masala dosas were off, I would stand shellshocked in front of the cashier and stumble vacantly through the menu, eventually settling for something vastly inferior and unsatisfying. Not even the gooey mess they called American Chopsuey could compare to my beloved masala dosas.
When I spent my week in Mumbai last December, my hosts delighted in teasing me about them – though in truth, they did have to drag me unwillingly from one South Indian eatery. “We're going to McDonald's, Barns, you can't have a masala dosa!”
The biggest shock was to come, though: soon after my return to Kerala, and my Technopark haven, Cafe Mojo... disappeared. Well, the premises didn't disappear, but it was populated by different staff, different bottles of hand soap by the sinks, and – most unpleasant of all – a different menu, on which masala dosas were conspicuously absent. Over the month or so since this jarring change, I've visited these as-yet-unnamed impostors sullenly hoping that they've added my favourite item to the menu, but it hasn't happened yet. Mojo, meanwhile, is rumoured not to have disbanded but simply to have moved premises – to a flash new building up on the hill, leaving me feeling like an abruptly spurned lover.
I'm now in masala dosa limbo. Mojo is a little too far away to walk to before work, and not far enough to justify a rickshaw ride. Meanwhile, all the other substitutes I've tried have been unable to measure up, from Hotel New Aryaas in Kazhakuttam to the Vegetarian Refreshment Room at Varkala railway station. Some are better than others, and I would even admit that some are very good, but they're not Mojo. And once you find a masala dosa you like, you can never replace it.