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Going against the grain

In an interesting new way forward for Indian food, two chefs have introduced their own versions of the multi-grain dosa, a healthier alternative to the traditional dish. Vir Sanghvi finds out more.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2011 12:41 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I have written often enough about my admiration for the dosa which I consider the ultimate Indian fast food. It's not that difficult to make - after all, it is served in nearly every office canteen in India - does not cost a lot and provides a high-quality filling meal.

Unlike American fast food, however, the dosa is a proper dish, made to order from a batter that has to be freshly prepared each day and does not depend on pre-packaged, frozen or processed ingredients. The vegetables for the masala (if you order a masala dosa) must be fresh; the chutneys do not really work unless they are ground only a few hours before being served and a good sambar can be a gourmet dish by itself.

DosaInnumerable books have been written about the techniques that go into creating a McDonald's or Pizza Hut operation and while there is much to admire in the US fast food model, my own view is that a restaurant like Sagar in Defence Colony, Delhi or MTR in Bangalore is far more impressive in its ambition and execution. It is not easy to serve hundreds of dosas each day, ensuring that the batter ferments perfectly each time and that, even though each dosa is made from scratch, there is no variation in quality.

My only concern with the dosa has been one of health. In this era when people worry about their consumption of complex carbohydrates, how healthy can it be to eat dosas that are fried and where ghee or butter are used almost as a matter of course?

The first indication that somebody was trying to protect the dosa from the health lobby came when I went to the ITC Mughal hotel in Agra in 2008. The then general manager Anil Chadha made me try a multi-grain dosa which, he assured me, was a healthier version of the traditional dish. I loved it. And so, I guess, did many others because you can now get multi-grain dosas at most ITC Luxury Collection hotels. (Chadha took the dosa with him to Bangalore's ITC Windsor where he is now the general manager.)

I thought of the multi-grain dosa as being an ITC preserve till I was served one for breakfast at Bombay's Taj Lands End. It was clearly not a traditional dosa but it tasted terrific and I asked chef Anirudhya Roy, who runs the Lands End kitchens, where he had got the idea from. Roy, a modest man, refused to accept any of the credit. The dosa had been created by chef 'Nat' Natarajan, one of the Taj's most respected chefs (he opened Southern Spice in Madras in the Nineties) and Roy had merely reproduced Nat's recipes.

The two competing multi-grain dosas got me thinking. Were Indian chefs now coming around to the view that something needed to be done to make the dosa healthier? Perhaps the ITC experiment was not an isolated one. I got Roy to send me a copy of Nat's recipe and Chadha sent me the original ITC multi-grain recipe.

I've reproduced both recipes here so you can judge for yourselves but my sense is that the two dosas are quite different even if they work on the same basic premise. Natarajan's multi-grain dosa takes its name seriously. Of the 400 gm of ingredients that go into the dosa, 300 gm consist of raw rice and there is another 100 gm of boiled rice.

Traditionally, dosas are made of rice and urad dal in a 2:1 ratio, and in a sense, Natarajan keeps to this formula with 200 gm of dal to 400 gm of rice. But he uses two dals - 100 gm urad and 100 gm moong. Then he adds a full 300 gm of other grains: 100 gm of broken wheat, 100 gm of oats, 50 gm of ragi and another 50 gm of barley. So while you get the traditional components of a dosa, you also get a lot of other grains as well.

The ITC version takes a different tack. It has two distinct processes. First, it uses a dosa batter that is different from the 2:1 rice-to-dal formula. It requires 900 gm of basmati rice and only 100 gm of urad dal, thereby significantly cutting down the dal content. The second process consists of making a grain mix from flax, rye, corn meal, wheat bran, barley etc. and grinding it. Then, you add the dosa batter to the grain mix in the ratio of 10:6. This is significantly different, not just from the Taj dosa, but also from the traditional dosa.

I've known Nat for years, from the days when he was a sous chef in the old Rendezvous in Bombay through his adventures in the South. For my money, he is the single most under-rated chef in the country, largely because of his own retiring nature and partly because he is based in Madras, and not in the media hot-spots of Delhi and Bombay.

I phoned him to ask about his dosas. It turned out that as corporate chef for the Gateway Hotels (one of the Taj's four brands along with Taj Luxury, Vivanta and Ginger), he set out to create lighter dishes for all his menus. He was guided by such nutritional principles as the glycemic index. (Simply put, this posits that foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the release of insulin which converts food to fat so we should eat foods with a low glycemic index to stay thin.) His aim was to invent a menu that cut out the foods high on the glycemic scale.

He found this easy enough to do with lunch and dinner but for breakfast, he decided to eschew the usual chef's trick of simply making his breads with whole wheat (lower on the glycemic index than maida) and to do something truly imaginative. Not only did he come up with this dosa but he also tinkered with the masala that goes into a masala dosa, reducing the potatoes, adding lots of peppers and using olive oil.

Nat says you can get his multi-grain dosa at most Gateway Hotels though it does not seem to have caught on at the fancier Taj properties. The reason I got to try it at the Lands End was because chef Roy visited a Gateway Hotel, tried the dosa, liked it and asked Nat for the recipe. As yet, the Taj has no plans to serve healthy dosas to guests who pay high room rates.

The ITC story is almost the opposite. While the Taj's dosa was created by one of the group's most senior and experienced chefs, the multi-grain dosa at the Mughal was invented by Pratish Nair, a young and enthusiastic chef in the hotel's kitchen. I tracked down Pratish and discovered that his motives were almost the same as Nat's.

When ITC opened its award-winning Kaya Kalp spa in Agra, Pratish was handed the job of trying to evolve a spa cuisine. Frankly, this is not as difficult as it sounds. There are thousands of spas all over the world serving rubbish food in the name of good health so all he had to do was to steal a few recipes.

But Pratish wanted to do Indian breakfasts that were healthy. All over ITC, chefs live by Nakul Anand's axiom - now regarded as gospel by the hotel industry - that the one meal guests always eat in the hotel is breakfast and most Indians want idlis or dosas for breakfast, so, unless a hotel gets its South Indian breakfasts right, it will never be regarded as an F&B success.

Pratish's experience had taught him that guests like their dosas crisp, almost like paper dosas. But how can you make a healthy dosa, full of grains and seeds and still achieve crispness unless you use lots of cooking fat (butter, ghee etc.) which rather defeats the point of the exercise?

He began experimenting and created about 45 different recipes before junking them all. But eventually, he cracked it. If he made the dosas with basmati rice, he discovered, then they got crisp quite easily. Moreover, if he put flax seeds into the batter, then the seeds released enough oil for him not to have to worry about adding any extra fat to the tawa.

So, when Pratish makes his multi-grain dosas now, he uses a special tawa meant only for this dish and - here's the best part - he cooks them without any oil, ghee or butter at all! Still, he gets crisp, perfect dosas each time!

I've eaten both versions of the multi-grain dosa though admittedly my experience of the Taj dosa is limited to chef Roy's interpretation rather than Nat's original. A few things seem clear.

One, you can't compare them. They are quite different. Two, both are terrific. Three, you must eat them fresh from the tawa. They do not survive the inefficiency of the average room service waiter. And four, they represent an interesting new way forward for Indian food. I doubt if they will ever catch on in home cooking (too many ingredients) but they prove that, all over India, there are chefs who strive to make the familiar seem more interesting - and healthier!

Chef pratish nair's Multi-Grain Dosa
Portions - 4

For the grain mix
90 gm flax seed
40 gm wheat flour
20 gm wheat bran
25 gm linseed
50 gm soy flour
30 gm barley
15 gm sunflower seeds
50 gm corn meal
20 gm wholemeal oat flour
5 gm sesame seeds
30 gm rye flour
5 gm cumin seeds
Salt to taste

For the dosa batter
900 gm basmati rice
100 gm urad dal
1 portion coconut chutney
1 portion tomato chutney
1 portion garlic chutney
1 portion sambar

Method(dosa batter)
Soak rice and urad dal together for 5 hours
Grind to a fine paste and
ferment overnight

Soak all the seeds in warm water for 10 minutes.
Grind to a coarse paste and mix with fermented dosa batter. (60 gm grain mix to a 100 gm dosa batter).
Rest the batter for 30 minutes at room temperature after mixing in the coarsely ground seeds.
Pour the batter onto a hot plate and cook without adding oil.

Chef natarajan's Multi-Grain Dosa
Portions - 21

For the grain mix
300 gm raw rice
100 gm boiled rice
100 gm urad dal
50 gm barley
100 gm broken wheat
100 gm green moong dal
100 gm oats
50 gm ragi flour
Salt to taste
Vegetable mixture
100 ml olive oil
2 tsp mustard seeds
50 gm garlic, chopped
500 gm onion, sliced
12 green chillies, chopped
500 gm tomatoes, chopped
400 gm green capsicums, diced
400 gm red capsicums, diced
1 kilo large potatoes, diced
20 gm basil leaves, shredded

Red chutney
30 gm garlic cloves
50 gm small onion
750 gm tomatoes, chopped
100 gm dry red chilli
50 gm tamarind pulp
Salt to taste

Green chutney
1.5 cup grated coconut
3 cup coriander leaves
15 green chillies, chopped
50 gm tamarind pulp
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a skillet and add mustard. Add garlic, onion and green chillies and saute.
Add vegetables and toss in a slow fire until they are cooked well and become soft
Add basil, salt and check the seasoning.

Soak all the ingredients, apart from the ragi and oats, in water for 2 hours
Grind to a fine paste in a grinder, as you do with regular dosa batter
Now mix oats and ragi flour into the batter. Add salt and leave to rise overnight.
When fermented well, make thick dosas out of the batter on a hot plate.

Apply green chutney and red chutney on rough side of the dosa and place vegetable filling. Top with second dosa.
Garnish with cherry tomato, olive and basil.
Serve with hot sambar and the chutneys.

- From HT Brunch, February 6

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