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PARTY WATCH

Grab Your Dosa While It's Hot

September 30, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people serve pancakes for Sunday brunch. Smita Salgaonkar serves dosas. They're pancakes, south Indian style. Instead of butter, syrup or fruit, dosas are often accompanied by coconut chutney and sambar, a stewy lentil and vegetable mixture. They are thin like crepes, but crisp and large. Sometimes they are filled with spiced potatoes. And instead of flour and eggs, the batter is based on finely ground rice and lentils.

Dosas must be eaten hot off the griddle, so when Salgaonkar stages a dosa brunch, she invites only a handful of guests.

Because good dosas are hard to find outside India, Salgaonkar's invitations are prized. She has not only mastered the dosa but also has added touches of her own that make it even more appealing.

For example, rather than the usual plain coconut chutney, she has come up with a luscious pale green mixture that contains yogurt, cilantro, peanuts and three kinds of fried dal (lentils) in addition to coconut. "I improvised it," she says.

Dosas originated in southern India but have spread to other parts of India, including Salgaonkar's home city, Mumbai (Bombay). Salgaonkar learned dosa making from her mother, Nisha Sathaye, an artist living in Mumbai. Her mother's special touch is adding moong dal to the batter, which usually includes just small pale ivory urad dal and rice. The idea was to make the dosas more nutritious. It also makes them delicious.

On a recent Sunday, close relatives and a few friends gather at the Salgaonkar home in Orange to indulge in this treat. As the first guests arrive, they snack on chevda, a spicy mixture that in India usually involves crisp fried lentils and dough shreds made from chickpea flour. Salgaonkar's Southern California variation substitutes American cereals, Spanish peanuts and shoestring potatoes for the usual components.

Brunch begins with an appetizer, meat-filled samosas. Here too, Salgaonkar's creativity comes into play. Instead of conventional samosa dough, she uses puff pastry, which she forms into triangles filled with spiced ground pork. After baking these until crisp, she passes them to guests to eat with date and tamarind chutney. "I call them samosas," she says, "but they're really pseudo-samosas."

Now Salgaonkar starts the dosas. She spoons a bit of batter into a large nonstick skillet and swirls it into an even circle with the back of the spoon. In one sense, the procedure is the same as for making French crepes.

"The first one is always a test," Salgaonkar says, laughing, as the dosa batter cooks. Nevertheless, she produces a beautiful, perfectly round, thin dosa on the first try.

Unlike pancakes, dosas are not flipped; they cook on one side only. As the batter begins to firm, Salgaonkar sprinkles oil lightly around the edges. "I've tried making them without oil," she explains, "but they get too dry."

When a dosa is almost done, she spoons potato filling down the center and folds each side over the top. The potatoes are seasoned with turmeric, which turns them bright yellow, and mixed with moong dal (mung beans), green chiles, curry leaves and mustard seeds.

Cooking dosas appears simple, but a few tricks are involved. The dough must be swirled quickly and evenly before it sets to form a smooth circle. If not enough batter is added, the dosa will be ragged and unusable.

Although dosas must be cooked just before serving, most of the work takes place in advance. The lentils and rice are soaked separately overnight. The next day, they are ground with water and combined into a batter. Salgaonkar places the batter in a sunny window to ferment all day, then stores it in the refrigerator until the next day.

Salgaonkar's mother sends her own blend of spices for the lentil accompaniment, sambar. Sambar masala, however, is available in all Indian shops.

While Salgaonkar cooks, Hindi film tunes play on the stereo, and her husband, Jagdish, pours wine. This touch is strictly Californian. In India, the beverage choice might be tea, coffee, water or juice.

With the dosas, he poured first a Chardonnay from California, then an Australian Semillon-Chardonnay blend. The fruitier Australian wine emerged as the better match, and Jagdish quickly dubbed it "special dosa wine."

After the dosas came dessert, yet another of Salgaonkar's inventions: ice cream flavored with rose syrup, saffron, pistachios and cardamom. And before departing, guests sipped cardamom-scented Indian chai (tea).

The Salgaonkars run a busy household. She is marketing manager for a health-care company, and he is an environmental consulting engineer. Parents of two daughters, they entertain frequently and give dosa parties several times a year.

When they were married 15 years ago, Smita Salgaonkar did not know how to cook. "Absolutely zero," says her husband proudly. That has certainly changed. Now he prefers not to go out to Indian restaurants. As he puts it, "I just eat dosas here."

Menu

Chevda (crisp lentil snack)

Samosas

Dosas With Spiced Potatoes and Sambar

Coconut Chutney

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