I assumed they'd made a typographic error. On the menu board above the washbasins in Sree Aryaas Hotel, opposite Varkala railway station, there was something called paper roast. Surely they meant pepper? I chuckled to myself, imagining the edges of a newspaper curling up and catching fire inside an oven, then I carried on eating my masala dosa.
That was over two years ago, when I was new to India and the often curious way in which dishes are named. 'Fish fry' instead of 'fried fish'. 'Egg roast', 'egg curry' and 'egg masala', three different types of egg-in-spicy-gravy that at some restaurants taste exactly the same. The difference was that with these, the name offered a clear idea of what it represented. But paper roast? That could be anything.
I started seeing it more and more on restaurant menus. It became a cat-and-mouse game that I failed to acknowledge, a cosmic attraction between a South Indian dish and a young and impressionable foreigner. The interesting thing was that it was always the most expensive item on the menu, usually around Rs. 60 (by comparison, a masala dosa is anywhere between Rs. 20-30). This made it impossible to ignore.
Finally, this week I went to a restaurant near my office with my friend Ron for moral support and took the plunge. “Paper roast,” I said when the waiter looked at me. The words felt funny coming out of my mouth, like a secret code. They may as well have been. I still had no idea what I was in for.
Ron's masala dosa came, and he finished it before my paper roast arrived. Though his masala dosa looked tasty – as all masala dosas do – this only heightened the suspense. If something takes so long to make, it must be good.
And then it came, my very own paper roast, and it made my mouth drop open in shock. It was a dosa – a pancake made of rice flour – but the biggest, crispiest dosa one could conceive of. It arrived brought by two people and on three trays: two for the metre-long tube of dosa, one for the condiments (sambar and two kinds of chutney). If I'd held it up and stood next to it, all 6'5” of me, it would've been more than half my height. If I unrolled it and pressed it flat, it would have been as big as our table for four. It was, without question, the most ridiculous thing I'd ever seen in a restaurant.
Considered thought and debate are no help when confronted with the task of eating paper roast, so I relied on intuition. I first broke it into two halves so it would fit on one tray, where it resembled a pair of outsize shotgun barrels. Ron snapped a quick photo before I tucked in. I looked manic and a little terrified.
'Paper' was not a misnomer. The dosa was wafer-thin, and it had been fried in ghee to crisp perfection. I broke a piece off hesitantly and placed it in my mouth... and it was of course absolutely delicious. The next piece was used to test the sambar. World class. Then the chutneys. Not earth-shattering, but good enough. Put it all together, and I'd found my new culinary obsession.
My pace quickened as I grew accustomed to the required technique, flattening a section a little and then shovelling in the shards created. Very soon, a sharp and poorly chewed piece of dosa lodged in my throat. These things ought to carry a health warning, I thought. 'Contains sharp pieces. Not suitable for children under the age of 8.' They could add 'May cause heart attack on sight' underneath. Paper roast was like the South Indian version of those challenge hamburgers at Texan diners, the ones that take several pounds of beef and are free if you can finish them. (The shard remained in my oesophagus for the remainder of the evening.)
Through the ebb and flow of conversation with Ron, I kept on eating, barely pausing for more than five seconds at a time. Half an hour passed. I still had paper roast left on my tray. It was still just as crispy and delicious, as if to taunt me. I wasn't full yet, so I vowed to finish it and carried on, but I experienced an emotion I've never felt during a meal before: boredom. This thing was so big and took so long to eat that even though I was having it for the first time, I got bored while eating it.
Paper roast, the dosa that goes to 11. Paper roast, the meal of a lifetime, so stupendous you only need to eat it once. Paper roast, the food that defeats you through sheer perseverance. It wasn't me that persevered at carrying on until there was nothing more left; it was the paper roast. When it was finally finished, fully 40 minutes after it was brought out, I said to Ron, “That was fantastic. I'll never eat it again.”