I’m always fascinated by the diversity of restaurants here in India. There are mobile street stalls that are no bigger than a couple square meters where you can grab a quick snack; there are decadent restaurants that rival the hottest spots in Paris. And there are fantastic, typical street-side restaurants that serve “fast food” downstairs – which basically means that you go to a counter and place an order, pay, walk to another counter to pass off your ticket to the kitchen. Then, once your food is done, you eat it standing up ‘community style’ at one of a dozen counters there in the front of the restaurant. A lot of these places also have quaint dining rooms with service upstairs, like the fantastic vegetarian restaurant New Krishna Sagar in Bangalore where I was recently put to work for a couple of hours as a cook (this is where we were).
I have been coo coo for masala dosas since I enjoyed the first bite of one back in June at the infamous Airlines Hotel in downtown Bangalore. I can’t really explain why but I have an odd obsession with this food and will go through phases when I crave one almost every single day…though thankfully I don’t give in to my craving that often. Lordy, imagine what my ass would look like if I did! So what better way to feed the obsession than to go on an adventure into a typical Indian restaurant and learn exactly what goes into creating this yummy Indian fast food treat.
The opportunity to work as a cook came up quite spontaneously while I was out and about in town already running errands. I was wearing a relatively long flowing floral frock, a silk scarf and my favourite Tod’s strappy heels. Not exactly the most appropriate outfit for what I was about to do but as they say back home in Spain “es lo que hay” (it is what it is) so I just went for it. Mahabala K. Poojari, the charming and hospitable owner of New Krishna Sagar, agreed to donate his time to explain the ABC’s of the restaurant and show me how masala dosa is made.
In India, business doesn’t happen until a sufficient amount of personal interaction has taken place first. So when business is with a restaurateur you can imagine that it will involve food and drinks. So in keeping with Indian tradition, Mahabala basically tried to force feed me lunch and Indian sweets, which would be rude for me to refuse. And normally I would be all over this generosity, trust me, I can be quite a little piggy. My only problem is that I am in full-swing bikini boot camp mode in preparation for Goa in January so I really didn’t need or want anything. But my friend said that I would be insulting the owner if I didn’t…so I enjoyed a small sweet pastry and fresh watermelon juice, which seemed enough to please the owner.
If you have never had the pleasure of eating a masala dosa, you are really missing out. This magical treat is essentially a thick Indian crepe that has been brushed with spicy red chilli, it is both sweet and salty, then filled with a – of course, spicy – mixture of herbs, onions, potato, cashews, lentils, etc etc… and rolled up either burrito style or into a 2-dimentional triangle if you can picture that. It’s pure heaven.
My first lesson took place in the grain storeroom where I was shown exactly which legumes and grains are processed, ground up and then refined even further in order to make the fresh flour that is then mixed with salt and water to create the perfect batter. They don’t use manufactured flour for their dosas, which ensures the quality is just right and it keeps costs down. It’s fresh and you can really taste the difference.
Next we moved downstairs from the grain storeroom into the kitchen and there we actually caused quite a stir. I think it’s safe to say that a white girl in a dress and heels had never walked into that kitchen to work before and we actually had a little crowd of staff following us around, it was cute. One of the staff had prepared a platter with all of the necessary ingredients to make the potato filling and the owner put me to work in front of the largest wok-like pan I had ever seen. It was shiny silver and smouldering hot and he walked me through the process of making the filling. First we seasoned the pan with oil, and then started adding spices, legumes, chillies and onions… we added in basically a huge handful of some delicious smelling herbs and coriander and the aroma coming up from the mix was wonderful. Coarsely chopped cashews were the last ingredient added into it…yum yum!! Once the mix had cooked enough I was given a spoon to taste test and it was delicious.
From there we went to where the real action is and I was put to work in the open kitchen of New Krishna Sagar that faces the street. Now THAT was interesting, I think just as much for me as for the guests outside looking in at this blonde behind the grill whipping up their dosas! My first attempt at making a dosa was a nightmare, I poured the batter completely wrong, didn’t add enough clarified butter to it, you name it….I messed it up. So I asked the chef to show me exactly how to do it ….again!!!
After that I stepped back in and actually did it right. Not PERFECT, but at least more or less right. First, you take a cup of water and pour it onto the grill and move it around to freshen up the grill using a bunch of branches or long reeds that are tied together, which is really fun. Then you dip into the batter and pour it onto the grill in one pile and use the bottom of the cup to spread the batter and make a nice big dosa. Once it has been spread out to the right size, you sprinkle a little ghee – or clarified butter – on it and spread on red chilli paste. Last, grab a handful of the potato filling (and by grab I mean literally grab it with my hand) and place it in a ball on the centre of the dosa and let it cook for a minute or so.
So there I was, hot and sweaty at the grill, whipping up masala dosas, placing them onto plates or into to-go boxes, and serving customers. It was actually really fun. And quite funny every time I did something wrong because the entire kitchen and all of the guests of New Krishna Sagar standing outside in front of the counter would laugh with me as I tried again. Okay, probably they were laughing AT me, not with me, but it was all in good fun.
At the end of my “shift” I marched myself upstairs with the owner and enjoyed the fruits of my labour. Mmmmm mmmmm, I was hungry from the hard work at this point too so I thought “screw bikini bootcamp” and I gobbled up my masala dosa with my hands in record time.