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India's new offering to curry Western flavor
By Raja M

MUMBAI - Vittorio Rossi, a stocky car dealer from Sao Paulo in Brazil, tucked into his vegetarian dinner at a busy restaurant near Mumbai's Sahar international airport. "I like the dosa," he drooled. "Indian food might be good for Brazilian travelers, but it can be too spicy in my country."

But the dosa, he averred, will be a hit back home in Brazil. His friend Ivaldo Bertazzo, a dance teacher, beamed approval. Rossi and Bertazzo are just two in a growing worldwide chorus singing praise to the dosa, a humble south Indian dish destined to add itself to software engineers, the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and the Nehru jacket as quintessential global symbols of India.

"A south Indian crispy potato-filled pancake," the US Department of State described the dosa in its country report for India. The Cathay Pacific Airways website described the dosa as "bread", which is about as accurate as dismissing a Boeing aircraft as a flying carpet. But called a pancake, wafer, crepe or roll, the dosa holds potential to be the next big international snack in the money-spinning realm of the burger, pizza and fries. More so, in happy contrast, the dosa qualifies as health food.

Three decades ago, the dosa was a relatively rare sight out of its native south India. But now it packs power, adding to India's much gloated US$100 billion-plus forex reserves. Exclusive dosa restaurants, dosa festivals and exports of pre-packaged dosa mixes feed a domestic Indian food business worth $77 billion, according to a Rabo India report released last November. "We envision the country to be one of the largest food markets in the world ... [and] one of the top global exporters," the report said.

The Rabo India report does such prospects no damage. The Dosa Diner, a restaurant chain serving dosa in a Pizza Hut-type of decor, has joined an Indian restaurant business growing at 25 percent. Sanjay Narang, the owner of the parent company, Mars Restaurants, announced plans of opening Dosa Diners in other countries, including Singapore.

Made with batter from parboiled rice and black gram left to ferment for eight hours, making dosa is an acquired, refined art. The batter is spread evenly in a warm griddle, from the center outwards in swiftly expanding circles, and cooked to crisp golden color. The dosa is then deftly wrapped around savory fillings, like spiced potatoes or mixed vegetables - a pleasing sight, and one that many five-star restaurants flaunt with a chef twirling dosas near buffet tables, much as they rustle up a Caesar's salad or mix an Irish coffee.

Served usually with a pungent lentils and vegetables curry called sambhar and grated coconut-chilly chutney, the dosa manages the rare feat of satisfying both junk and health food addicts. It serves as a breakfast dish, as well as lunch, dinner or an anytime finger-food snack, freshly made in street-side stalls in Indian cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. It can be eaten with fork and spoon, or best on traditional banana leaves that seem to bring out a special flavor.

"The dosa is one of the most intellectual and also tasty cuisines that man could devise," gushes Kavita Mehta from her online food shop Indian Foods Company, that was born after her successful Indian cooking classes in Minneapolis, USA. "Parboiled rice helps preserve vitamins, unlike polished rice, and lentils taken in the right combinations and then fermented and steamed to deliver a profoundly nutritious, balanced and tasty meal. This cuisine is ultra light on the earth's resources and on the digestive system and hence a true health and wellness meal for both the environment and the individual."

Mehta is on a good wicket. If Vittorio Rossi expects South Americans to lap up the dosa, the North Americas are already at it. New York has its share of specialty restaurants like Dosa Hut on the corner of 27th Street, and NYC Dosa in Washington Square. "If you've never had a proper version of the dosa it might strike you as a brilliant take on the form of a veggie burrito," wrote Los Angeles Times food critic Anne Fishben. "But it has few of the textural contrasts that make masala dosa potentially one of the world's greatest dishes." The Bombay Cafe and the All India Cafe in Fair Oaks Avenue, Old Town Pasadena, do dosa duty in California, offering five different types of dosas at prices range from $4 to $5.

Five varieties make an impoverished choice, in times when the average A-grade restaurant in Mumbai, where $1 buys a hearty meal, offers around 30 to 50 varieties of dosas. Apart from the standard plain, masala, rava, mysore and the paper dosa - whirled into an enormous cone or into a roll bigger than the average newspaper - the dosa fare boggles the imagination with varied fillings: from the paneer - cottage cheese - dosa, the four-feet long family dosa, mushroom dosa, spinach dosa to pineapple dosas and Szechwan dosas. Bizarre innovations abound like the biscuit dosa and the "Amar Akbar Anthony dosa" - named after a Bollywood blockbuster in the 1970s - reflecting the consumer confidence of a nation demanding novelty.

The origins of the dosa are lost. Called dosi in Tamil Nadu, the traditional dosas evoke images of dosas sizzling leisurely over village mud stoves and wood smoke. The dosa, like most other south Indian culinary exports, is often linked to Udipi, a small temple town in the state of Karnataka. Udipi, the birthplace of Hindu saint Madhavacharya, is better known as the chain of vegetarian restaurants serving inexpensive, wholesome vegetarian south Indian food in places as far apart as Chicago, London, Abu Dhabi and Johannesburg. That food map appears as a dosa foundation destined for greater glories.

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Jan 24, 2004


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