Dosa delights

These delicate crepes are hard to make at home but not for the 'Dosa Man.'

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    So good: New York street vendor Thiru Kumar (aka the 'Dosa Man') serves up one of his rice crepes. In 2007, Mr. Kumar and his dosas won the Vendy Awards, which honor sidewalk chefs.
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Last year, rice crepes from South India – yes, the humble dosa – got the nod from the foodies of New York when Thiru Kumar, the "Dosa Man," was voted the purveyor of the best street food in their city. Soon after the Vendy Awards, which honor wayside chefs, were announced, I sent my mother in India an e-mail telling her of the dosa's showing at the culinary crossroads. She was not elated.

For most South Indian cooks, I suspect, this is a real sore point: The homemade dosa doesn't look or taste the same as the pliable, paper-thin restaurant version. Kids who disdain the sturdy lunchbox dosa, as I once did, still ask for the masala dosa – the foot-long roll-up filled with savory potato stuffing – when the family eats out.

On Sundays when I was growing up, we often ordered in. The masala dosa came swathed in a banana leaf and further wrapped in newspaper. When it arrived, even the deftest fingers I know – my mother's – seemed too slow for the task of unwinding the twine around these aromatic parcels.

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The stuffed dosa, despite being a complete meal, comes with sachets of condiments that have to be freed from an unyielding clutch of tiny rubber bands.

It was my job to transfer the fragrant sambar, a pea and vegetable stew, into a bowl and ladle a cupful for everyone. Coaxing chutneys of various colors into containers was next. Duty done, I could work on my dosa treat, starting from the crusty, golden-brown edge.

Making dosas used to be hard work. Cooks soaked rice and lentils in water for several hours and ground these ingredients in a stone mortar. After this muscle work, the job still wasn't finished. The batter needed to ferment. Then, once bubbles rose to the top, it had to be refrigerated, or it would turn too sour and be fit only to make uthappams, a pancakelike dish I don't like.

Although groceries now sell tangy, ready-made batter, making dosas is still no piece of cake. Even the rava dosa, which is conjured from wheat and rice flour and involves little prep work, calls for serious skill to get its lacelike texture right.

This dosa simply can't be hurried, and everyone understands that. Our strict organic chemistry professor, who would not let students enter the classroom after 8:30 a.m., allowed latecomers in if they mumbled something about the "dosa queue." True, we could have had bread for breakfast and arrived on time, but even this disciplinarian did not expect that kind of self-denial from us.

Now that I live in New England, it is pointless to hanker after that unattainable restaurant taste. So I make green dosas at home because the tangy flavor of fermentation isn't crucial for them.

The soaked mung beans that I use to make the batter look ready to burst out of their skins when I step into the kitchen to fix brunch. Blending the about-to-sprout beans with ginger takes me all of five minutes.

Ladling out a dollop of this pleasant-smelling batter into the center of the hot skillet, I draw out the mix in a slowly widening circle until I reach the rim of the vessel; this dosa pairs with mildly spiced peanut chutney.

Sometimes, I do succumb to nostalgia and bring back boxes of frozen masala dosa, but the thawed meal tastes vaguely of compromise. I am generally content with my culinary lot, but I envy New Yorkers because the Dosa Man hands them the crisp, authentic, South Indian original every afternoon. His clientele get to partake of gastronomic perfection. Perhaps they instinctively recognize this – even without knowing the culinary specifics – which is why they voted his cart to victory.

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