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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Masala Dosa - an Indian Cusine

A guest post by:
P.N. Sampath Kumar,
Cochin Ship Yard, Kochi (India)

What is the most favoured Tiffin across the world? I wrote my answer in one of the questionnaires supplied to me through some magazine as ‘Dosa’.

This circular magical recipe made of fermented batter prepared with rice, split black gram and fenugreek seeds in some proportion, made on a flat iron pan, has been the lifeline of people south of the Vindhyas. No mother in this region could be said to have not perfected the art of making dosas. No child in these regions could be said to have not had it as part of their regular menu. No wonder the moon like Dosa found its role in many a lullabies and stories.

Its first cousin, the Masala Dosa should have been the invention of some creative hotelier less than a century ago. Often semi circular in size, pregnant with potato curry stuffing in the middle, served with steam hot sambar and coconut chutney is the first choice of any south Indian foodie.

Masala dosas are not generally cooked at homes, unlike ordinary dosa. I am certain that no house wife in this world has ever perfected the art of making masala dosa. The testimony of it is the high demand for masala dosas in restaurants.

Somehow, the name Mysore is associated with masala dosa (as Mysore Masala Dosa) to show its superiority and also suggesting Karnataka as the birth place of this recipe. Similar is the case with Mysore Rasam and Mysore Bonda. The state of Mysore, which had been a very strong princely state with connoisseur kings, had attracted to it, several intellectuals, artistes, musicians and along with it, great cooks too. The Shivali Brahmins, basically from Udipi, Karnataka, who had the monopoly of south Indian Vegetarian restaurants across the world, would have spread this connotation. The credit for popularising masala dosa (along with filter coffee) throughout north India should go to the Indian Coffee House restaurant chains.

As Children, the word masala dosa always rejuvenated our taste buds. Those were the days when a visit to a restaurant was considered to be a luxury. My first adventure to a restaurant to have masala dosa happened when I was in 8th class. I often skipped the last period in my school and reached home late to give company to my classmate so that he can skip his tuition class which he never wanted to attend. The bribe offered to me was a masala dosa in the Krishna Bhavan Restaurant near the school. And that was the best masala dosa that I have ever had in my life. The aroma it had was awesome.

One has to begin with a piece of dosa from the corner, dipped in the chutney. The ecstasy ascends while approaching slowly towards the middle where the spicy potato masala is hidden. Then the potato curry starts getting invitingly revealing. By the time you finish the last mouth with whatever chutney and sambar left in the plate, it was like conquering the Everest or listening to a musical concert with a grand finale.

The aroma of the mixture of the masala, sambar and chutney stayed in my hand for hours and I often refused to take the regular boring evening dinner at home to keep the fragrance. I continued this friendship for want of Masala Dosa often risking myself getting caught at home. At last Masala Dosa won and I failed in studies.

The physical properties and chemical characteristics have been clearly sounded in the unwritten Masala Dosa Manual in vogue with south Indian hoteliers. It should be crispy and of size 15 to 18 Inch dia. Unlike ordinary dosa, Masala dosa is not reversed while cooking.

As regards the chemistry, dosa’s presence should be felt from a distance by mere fragrance of fried batter particles in butter oil coupled with the flavour of the potato curry escaping through the pores of dosa. Sambar, made of small local onion with asafoetida in it adds to the overall flavour of the cuisine. The prescribed overall colour is ‘golden’ with more thicker golden colour towards the centre of the circle.

The process is highly professional. Slightly fermented batter is spread on a large flat hot pan that can take 6-8 dosas at a time, with the bottom of a bowl, which is also used to measure and also to pour 2) By the time the cook spreads the eighth dosa, the first one would have been ready to take the stuffing 3) Place stuffing made of a secret combination of potato, onion, ginger, green chilly, turmeric powder and curry leaves and 4) By the time stuffing is placed in the eighth dosa, it is time to start folding the first dosa, into a half circle and serve with hot sambar and coconut chutney. More creative cooks have changed its physical property by presenting it in the form of flat cylinder, a cone, etc, depending upon their artistic fervour.

As a grown up, during my visits to the Town (Trichur), I always ventured to visit few of the famous restaurants that served good Masala Dosas. Prominent among them were Pathans, Ambadi, Dwaraka and Bharat. Bharat is still going strong. The other names have vanished over a period of time and new names appeared. I have heard my senior college mates talking about one Modern Swami’s café in Trichur which was more popular among masala dosa enthusiasts. By the time I reached college, this restaurant was closed for ever.

This healthy, very affordably priced food had/ has fans like Raj Kapoor and Khushwant Singh. Krishnaswami Sunderji, one of our yester year army Generals remembers in his memoirs, his younger days in Kashmir where they used to eat Masala dosa with mutton curry as stuffing in it in one of the roadside eateries regularly. Such is the transformation this wonderful dish has undergone over the years. Masala Dosa has travelled all over the world. We are hearing about Masala Dosa being served at White house on special occasions. I am sure that no town in the world which does not have a restaurant that serves Masala Dosa in some form or other.

But when I asked my son of his choice of something to be ordered to eat, his immediate answer was Pizza. I am wrong when I rated Masala Dosa as the most favoured in the beginning. My son’s taste buds charge up when he thinks of cutting out a piece from a medium pizza having abundant amount of sticky cheese spread on it, often flowing out, decorated with pieces of capsicum and tomato over it and seasoned with salt, pepper and red chilly flakes. The name masala dosa never evoked such a feeling in him.

But I am not disappointed. Though my town Cochin cannot boast of a great dosa tradition, there are a couple of places where only ‘Dosas’ are served. The ‘Pai Dosa Centre’ at MG road is one which serves 36 varieties of dosas. A recently started one near my home at Tripunithura, named ‘Dosa Corner’ too specialises only in Dosas, having 50 variants including chocolate dosas.
And at last the newspaper has come out with their results rating masala dosa as one of the 10 delicacies one should have in India.

A number of recipes are available in the net to attempt cooking Masala Dosa at home. But I wont’ suggest any as I do not want any of you to attempt it at home. This delicacy is meant to be relished while eating out.

Photo source: Wikimedia

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bio-diversity - After the Rains

Fortunately I was at my village home in Kerala during this Onam. Incessant rains were downing my spirits. Later the rains went on a casual leave and there was bright sunshine for a day or two. Finally rains departed. The climate was soothing. I could see wild growth of vegetation everywhere. Tubers, bulbs and seeds of various plants which were in hibernation,  under the soil, ran havoc. There were plenty of flowers everywhere and they come handy during this festival season for decorating the courtyards with beautiful patterns using the petals of flowers. Boys and girls start collecting flowers in the wee hours well before Sun Rise. My village happens to be at the North Western end of the village. There is a road in the front which runs through the village and opens up on the Highway.

My own home compound affords me an opportunity of moving around seeking appointments with various plants and flowers they bear. Since the land area is a little larger, I need to take several rounds everyday. Many of the species happen to be known ones but there were many others hitherto unknown or un noticed. Apart from flowers there is an abundance of other life forms like colourful flying or creeping  insects. I regret for not having studied botany, insect science etc.

One day while strolling around I found a beautiful sparkling green beetle resting on a leaf. My mother was telling me the other day that green grass hoppers were not to be seen these days. Incidentally they were very much there. Probably they are not entering our house enabling mom to sight them . She seldom moves out because of her poor eyesight. Two more grass hoppers bent upwards and one over the other were also sighted. When I went closer to them they got separated. They looked a little peculiar for they were a little bent and their stomach portion had red dots. Instinctively I thought of catching them for some careful examination of their belly but something prevented me and I walked past them.

Beautiful butterflies were flying over my head and one was too large. Although they  sat on the tender leaves, they never allowed me to photograph them. They flew away even before I could focus my camera. Thus I was denied the opportunity of photographing some thing extraordinarily beautiful. It could have been an endangered specie and I could have won laurels for their discovery! Then there occurred a hairy  larvae which was also beautiful but can not say if it was something special.

While reaching our front gate I found few bright red beetle like insects examining a bud of a wild climber. On closer look they were quite like ants but differed in their body structure. I wondered as to why Nature has given such an attractive colour for they would be susceptible to being picked up by birds. I discovered later that these ants were in fact waiting for the Pub to open. The bud blossoms into a beautiful flower and  the ants would then have the nectar in it.

I happened to walk out of the main gate and turn towards the right when I saw several buds, flowers and fruits clinging to the fence of my uncles house. They belonged to the same family.  Buds turn flowers and when they wither a fruit comes into being. Yes they are the phases I murmured. The ripe fruit is yellow in colour of the size of a berry. I remember to have seen them in the past too. Let me consult mom I thought as all my childhood learning are attributable to her. I plucked those fruits and went straight to my mom. She felt happy for I still valued her knowledge about such things. She informed me that the fruit is not normally eaten. Some poor children do eat them. It tastes like one’s mucus coming out of the nostrils. Immediately images of small children with a running nose licking their upper lips came to my mind.

That evening was spent at our backyard which also had its share of some wild growth. There were plants around four to five feet high and the leaves resembled that of  ginger or turmeric. Many of them had beautiful white flowers while some others of the same kind had dark pink flowers which appeared to be much more beautiful. They are supposed to be distantly related to Ginger plants and have use in traditional medicines. I was told that the Ayurvedic practitioners send their people out hunting for the roots of these plants.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Avantipur (Kashmir)

We were actually heading to Pahalgam but as we had instructed, our driver stopped the vehicle in front of the Avantipur temple ruins which were on the way. In one of my earlier posts, I had mentioned about a visit to this place which is around 30 kilometres South East of Srinagar and the attraction being the ruins of a 9th century temple. My friends were intrigued for they had known about one Avanti in central India, sometimes misunderstood as being the ancient name of Ujjain. On the lines of the Greek city states, India during its classical age had 16 republics known as Mahajanapadas known to us through ancient literature and religious texts. Avanti or Avantika was one such region. One of its capitals was Ujjain or Ujjaini.  Avantipur on the other hand was once a capital of Kashmir.

The imposing ruined structure was before us. A watchman posted there advised to procure tickets from the counter at the left. We obeyed the instructions and found a Sardarji (Sikh gentleman) sitting there. There was a notice board which contained the entry fee payable. Additional levies were prescribed for  still cameras and video cameras. Before I could tender the cash, Sardarji enquired “yes sir, where are you from”. We told them that we are tourists and are interested in taking some photographs. His next anxiety was to learn about me as to my vocation and if I am employed. I said I am no more in service and casually (or may be to establish my credibility) told him that I am an amateur archaeologist. Perhaps my words were music to him as he instantly said Sir, you need not buy any tickets. For you it is free. I apprised him that we are in all 10 to which he countered, so what?. My next query was what about the cameras we are carrying. He said in a typical Punjabi tone “who prevents you”. Thereafter I called in all the people who were still tied to their seats in the vehicles.

During the 12th century there lived a highly learned sanskrit scholar and poet in Kashmir whose name was Kalhan. He was the author of a work known as Rajatarangini (a history of ruling dynasties). He states that Raja Avantivarman (855 – 883 AD) of the Utpala dynasty founded the city of Avantipura in an area known as Vishwaiksara  where Hindus performed religious rites for the salvation of their dead. The jhelam river (ancient name Vitasta)  was also nearby. Such a presence of a water body is not only ideal, is also necessary for the religious rites. We could infer that the place was considered to be a holy one much before the establishment of a City named Avantipura. Avantivarman, the King, was a follower of Vaishnava cult ( a Vaishnavite – worshippers of Lord Vishnu) and he continued to be so till his death. It was he who got a grand temple constructed for his Lord  during the 9th century. The central deity installed in the Sanctum Sanctorum was christened as Avantiswamin. The King had a minister named Sura who was very dear to him but Sura was a worshipper of Lord Shiva. Therefore Avantivarman got another equally grand temple constructed for Lord Shiva just a kilometre away. The temple is known as Avanteeswara which is also in ruins. Unfortunately we were not aware of its existence at such a short distance and we missed it.

Sultan Sikandar Butshikan, the 14th century ruler of Kashmir hailed from Afghanistan. To appease a spiritual leader Syed Ali Hamadani in that country, Sultan Sikandar engaged himself in a crusade and ended up in the massacre of Kashmiri people and destroying their holy places ruthlessly. All kinds of stage plays including music and folk songs, folk dances etc. were banned. Consumption of wine/liquor was made an offence. People were compelled to embrace Islam for fear of life. It is said that in the entire Kashmir only some 11 Hindu families escaped. We could perhaps draw a parallel with the Talibans of Afghanistan. Along with other temples, the Avantipur Vishnu temple was also not spared. However, it is said that the construction was so strong that it took over a year to have it demolished,  part of which still remains to tell us its past glory. Sultan Sikandar’s title “Butshikan” itself means a destroyer of Idols. Incidentally his second son Jain-ul-Abidin (1423 – 1474) was tolerant and considerate towards Hindus. He came to power after his brother proceeded to Mecca for a pilgrimage. However by the time Jain-ul-Abidin came to the scene, none of the Hindu temple structures had survived.

There was a well laid out pathway leading to the main entrance. The huge door,  made of lime stone blocks approachable through a flight of stairs stood majestically. The upper portions were in a broken condition together with the tall massive columns with ornamentation. The intricately carved main entrance would have been a sight to behold. Apart from the destruction it was subjected to, weathering has also played its due role. Many of the sculptures are now difficult to be recognised. The temple is rectangular with a huge courtyard measuring 170.6 x 147.6 feet. After entering through the main entrance we need to go down for being in the courtyard. There is yet another elevated structure at the middle with stairs leading to the sanctum sanctorum. There is an array of cells arranged around the periphery of the paved courtyard similar to Buddhist Viharas. We are not certain as to the purpose of those small rooms/cells. Could only presume that either they were used for meditation facing the central shrine or for placing large sculptures.There are remains of four smaller shrines at the four corners of the courtyard. 

During the  early part of twentieth century excavations were carried out by a team headed by D.R. Sahni resulting in the reclamation of the temple ruins up to the floor level. The excavation yielded a rich crop of antiquities including 121 coins issued by Toramana, Sultans of the Shah Miri dynasty, Durrani Afghan rulers etc. Sahni also excavated the quadrangle of the Avantisvara temple and brought to light a small earthen jar having 108 copper coins issued by various rulers, fragments of birch manuscripts containing accounts of articles of worship, inscribed earthen jar etc. The sculptures from this site are presently displayed at Srinagar Museum.

Temple architecture is supposed to have reached its zenith during that period with some sprinklings of Gandhara and Greek styles.

The Avanteeswara temple, a kilometre away and the Martand Sun Temple 8 kilometres away from Anantanag (Islamabad) built by Lalitaditya in the 8th century, though in ruins, are similar in style and construction. However, we were not fortunate enough to visit them.