Dosa! – The Truly Global, 2,000-Year-Old Tamil Recipe

Here's all you need to know about the story, history and recipe of the global dosa! Listen and drool!

4 min read

Welcome to a crispy, fragrant and flavourful episode of Southern Slurp. One that's properly Tamil – and I'm talking Sangam era, 2,000-year-old recipe – but is also definitely global.

What goes around comes around.

But with the dosa, the batter goes round and round the hot plate, and no matter who you are, you'll definitely come around to its taste, texture and the almost ritualistic accompaniments!


The Two Types of People

Those who love the soft, thick, dosa. And those who will give their all for that perfect, crisp absolutely circular disc that crumbles at your touch.

Which tastes better? Well that's no question at all, since it depends entirely on one's personality, memories and nostalgia. The right question is, which came first?

Thosai in Tamil.

Dosha in Telugu and Malayalam.

Dosey in Kannada.

And of course, 'Dosa' in all other languages. The dosa by any other name is still an intrinsically Tamil recipe. The word Dhosaka in Sanskrit is actually derived from the Tamil word 'Thosai', which finds mention in Sangam literature from earlier than the 1st century.

It has been written about across the ages, recipes hinted at, and eulogised in poems, although not nearly as much as the pongal - and we do have an episode on that as well. There are a lot of recipes that involve batter being shaped into a thin or plump disc and fried over a pan. You have the aappam, for example, or the 'adai', which is thick, yellow-brown and is eaten with aviyal, a thick coconut milk based vegetable stew.

What makes the dosa, a dosa as we know it today, is the rice and lentil based batter and the overnight fermentation. Among the ancient Tamils, the dosa was a purely rice-based dish, in which the batter is shallow fried in a pan.

A recipe that resembles this 2,000-year-old dish is the 'iLanthOsai'. It is pure white, silken soft in texture, and as thin as a silk handkerchief! It's extremely hard to master, even for expert cooks.

The Dosa Metaphor

You see, the story of the dosai is a beautiful metaphor.

For how recipes tend to get refined over time. From a rough and tumble experiment, to an ubiquitous pour-heat-and-eat recipe, to finer flourishes, to more complicated processing.

The ilanthosai as a recipe is simple, and is basically thin, salted rice batter. Over time, it grew whiter, thinner, silkier, and demanded more expertise.

The recipe too underwent additions and changes. Let's head to 12th century Karnataka, where King Someshwara III composed the Manasollasa, a compendium of all things that delight the mind. Food, of course, was given prime prominence. In it, he describes the dhosaka, the sanskritised version of the tamil 'thosai', and gives out what was then a popular recipe.

Batter made from urad dal, chick pea and green pea was fried in clarified butter - ghee, for Indians - over a hot tawa.


The Modern Dosa

Saravana Bhavan is a chain of restaurants that serves predominantly Tamilian cuisine.
Saravana Bhavan is a chain of restaurants that serves predominantly Tamilian cuisine.
(Photo: iStock)

The ingredients in the modern dosa are different, but this type of dish is still in vogue in Karnataka and Andhra. The Andhras have somehow retained the ancient recipe of frying in a broken pot. In fact their version of the dosa, called the 'aTTu' is derived from aTika, which means a broken mud pot.

The Telugus even have a festival 'aTla Daddi' (attu eating festival), in honour of this recipe! The dosas, or the aTTu, existed simultaneously in Telugu homes. This we know from poet Shrinatha's verses from the 15th century. He called them doosiyalu.

The crispy fried rice- and urad dal-based dosa that the world loves today was popularised by the Udupi restaurants that began in Mysuru, and then travelled to Delhi in the 1930s. And then there was no looking back!

Ratna Cafe in Chennai in 1948, Modern restaurant in Madurai in the early 50s, and of course, the impossibly swift rise of Saravana Bhavan from the 1980s to the 90s, have all made the dosa global. Each of these chains have brought in a little something to their version of the dosas.

The 'Masala' – a spicy mashed potato mix – was introduced by Udupi. The unlimited sambar combination remains Ratna Cafe's USP, and classy interiors and high quality ingredients once took Saravana Bhavan to heady heights.

The Dosa and the Attu

But you know, the dosas that are made in Tamil homes aren't crisp and brown. They're soft, thick, and far from crispy. But one, or at the most, two dosas are enough to get you through the morning. This is the version that is popular at roadside dosa stalls, and at homes. In that sense, it is similar to the aTlu of the Telugus.

The 15th century Telugu poet Srinatha sings about the Doosiyalu (dosas) as also the atlu, denoting that both these versions have existed simultaneously for quite a while. There have been patrons for both the thick, soft variety, and the thin crisp version for generations!

Which version of the dosa do you prefer? Write to us, and do let us know which south indian recipe you'd like to hear about next!

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