Dosa! I pride myself (a bit bordering on conceit) on being a dosa connoisseur, having tasted this gift of the Gods (did God have a slightly South Indian bias when blessing us with breakfast items?) wherever it was on offer during my abundant travels – from the humblest of rustic roadside shacks to the antiseptic environs of diners of some many-starred hotels. After analysing arrays of chutneys in all their multi-coloured glory of reds, greens and whites; consistencies ranging from fluid to viscous to thick; and textures from coarse to grainy to fine, I have learnt to not let these side actors impede my nuanced judgement of the main hero of the story. And not to forget the Sambar – that one dish which has such multifarious avatars that change every few miles of inhabitation, and upon which topic I can (and definitely will) write an exploratory tome. But these are not the object of my exposition today. And, surprisingly, neither is the dosa! It was only a lure to pull you into this monologue of my culinary discretion.
This rigmarole is about the pan on which the humble dosa (humble?) accomplishes its purpose in life (life? As in from soaking to grinding to fermentation?). So what are the choices for cooking this synonym of delight? The metal: aluminium, carbon steel, stainless steel? No! The coating: hard anodised, PTFE, enamel, ceramic? Nay! Been there done that! Then what’s my favourite? It’s my grandmother’s cast iron pan – a priceless inheritance! Well-seasoned over decades of use, cooking on this pan is such a delight. In fact I consider cooking on a cast iron pan an amazing scientific journey in itself. And let me confine myself within the bounds of the dosa – and note well, that I refer to a traditional, thick dosa, as against the superfluously wafer-thin ones of the modern times.
This morning, before commencing the much-awaited Sunday rituals of honouring the dosa through avid consumption, I was wondering about what actually goes on from the moment the dollop of batter hits a hot cast iron pan (yes, I know, but that’s quite typical of me – going off on cognitive journeys of unwarranted trifles) till it culminates in the metamorphosed dosa. And then it hit me (I know, it has hit the required scientific minds in South India and elsewhere in the world much earlier). Since cast iron is a poor conductor (pardon my getting into the scientific puddle hereinafter) and tends to form hot spots if not pre-heated well and being advantageous of withstanding high temperatures, it is heated to superhotness (yes, I know, no such word exists) before the batter is ladled onto it. And then the magic happens!
Since cast iron has a high heat emissivity, it radiates the imbibed heat quite well, which works miraculously to the advantage of the dosa. The surface of the dosa in contact with the sizzling pan surface gets seared and is transformed into a crisp, brown layer while the radiated heat passes through the several millimetres of batter above and cooks it into a soft, spongy cake with the bubbles of fermentation popping to the surface and escaping quickly through a multitude of pores. And covering the pan with a lid only helps the process as the evaporating water from the batter gets entrapped and steams the surface, thus aiding the cooking process. So what ends up on your plate is a fluffy, springy, yielding piece of divinity ready to soak up the chutneys and sambars of the world, but at the same time offering a dainty crust with a resistive nibble. Phew!
(I know, I accept, you have known this scientific rationale since time immemorial; but I just wanted to satiate my savage pangs for writing today…) So for my dosa cast iron it is! And for more reasons than the mumbo-jumbo above. For, it is the heirloom dosa, which no other pan can cook – not like my grandmother…
– Narendra Nayak © 2019