Guest article by Priyanka Gupta.
Dosa entered my life when I first moved to Bengaluru, Karnataka in 2010. By that time I had eaten dosas at home in Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India, but I had no idea how dosas tasted in South India — where they originated.
Our North Indian version of dosa is a crispy crêpe made of rice and urad dal and filled with spicy potato mash. We eat it with coconut chutney and tamarind sambhar, a curry that accompanies dosa throughout the country.
What is a Karnataka Dosa?
Known as dose in Kannada, the local language spoken in the state of Karnataka, dosa (the anglicized name) is mostly made with a fermented batter of rice and lentils. I had my first dosa in Bangalore at one of the quintessential Shiv Sagars.
This chain of multi-cuisine vegetarian restaurants in Bangalore and other Indian cities serves both North Indian and South Indian meals, but their signature dishes are the dosas, idly, and vadas they serve at breakfast time.
I remember that crispy goodness crunching in my mouth with the soft coconut chutney. The sambhar I ate a spoonful of after each bite filled my palette with a medley of many flavors.
Thus began my love for dosas and my eternal dosa search. Whether I was in Bangalore, on a trip from Bangalore to Coorg, exploring the Biligiriranga Hills (known locally as the BR Hills) or in any other part of Karnataka, I looked for the tiniest shops to eat dosas before starting my day.
Amongst the myriad of things to do in Hampi, I first spent hours every day eating every kind of crispy dosa I could find. The dosas in Hampi are known to be the crispiest in all of Karnataka.
When I returned from a long trip in South America, it was not roti curry that I craved, but rather dosa.
After having spent almost six years in total in Karnataka, I can happily say that dosa is a part of everyday life for all who have been to or live in this state.
Dosa and Veganism
When I first moved to Karnataka, I was an omnivore, so my first experiences of dosa were a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.
But slowly as I stopped eating most meat, dosas became my quintessential food item to look for whenever I couldn’t find anything vegetarian or I needed to feel at home. It’s a very reliable vegetarian/vegan option in India.
My vegan travel friends who visited from around the world would also ask me to take them to a dosa shop. They knew that dosa was one Indian dish that could be made without hurting any animals.
Dosas promote veganism unintentionally. The batter does not contain milk, there is no need to add butter or ghee (though some cooks do), and buttermilk and curd are not required either. For tips on avoiding ghee in India, see this article.
There are so many different kinds of fillings for dosas that it’s easy to find one that’s fully plant-based. Tonnes of vegetarian curries can accompany dosa, or you can just eat them with one of the thousand chutneys (sauces) served up in India.
Dosas are as wholesome and as animal friendly as it gets, and they are one of the coolest crêpes of the world, popular amongst citizens of every country.
Kinds of Dosas in Karnataka
Dosas can be made from many grains, and the grinding and fermentation process differs from house to house. The cooking process changes in every geographical region, every home and every restaurant.
Also, the fillings vary, and the crunchiness or softness of the dosa depends on where you are eating. Dosas could be thin or a bit thicker. They could be plain or first smeared with spicy red garlic chutney.
Without trying to pigeonhole dosas into inflexible categories, let’s look at the various ingredient options and forms of dosa that are available in Karnataka.
Dosas can be made out of practically any legume that can be soaked and softened and combined with rice to get a perfect texture. The rice could be sona masuri rice, dosa rice, raw rice, parboiled rice or rice flour, but the locals say that the raw rice tastes the best.
Here are some of the main kinds of grain mixtures used for Karnataka dosas:
1. Urad dal and rice mix: sometimes toor dal, chana dal, moong dal, fenugreek seeds, and flattened rice are added to this mixture to enhance the softness, texture, flavor, and taste
2. Multigrain dosa — made with a mix of many grains
3. Ragi dosa — ragi flour would replace the dal or would be added in proportions
4. Wheat dosa — whole wheat flour would be the main ingredient along with rice
5. Gram flour (chickpea flour) dosa
6. Sabudana dosa
7. Rava dosa — rava is coarsely or finely ground, husked wheat. Rava dosas can be made instantly without needing to ferment the batter first
8. Millet, oats, quinoa or any other grains can also be used to make dosas.
The above grains are first soaked and then ground to make the dosa batter. A dosa’s softness and texture will change depending on how the batter is ground.
People in Karnataka say that the best, fluffiest dosa — soft on the inside and crispy on the outside — can only be made with a stone grinder. They claim that machine-ground batter lacks flavour.
In the past, all Karnataka homes and restaurants kept big stone grinders to make the dosa batter. But since using the grinder is more labour intensive, and the post-cleaning process is also tough, many households (though not so many restaurants) are shifting to electric grinders.
Varieties and Types of Dosas in Karnataka
Below are some of the most popular types of dosas eaten in Karnataka today. The type of dosa chosen can depend on the time of the day, the local climatic conditions, and the culture and eating habits of the particular family and place. Fillings, accompanying curries, the shape, and the softness and thickness changes in each of these.
Karnataka Masala Dosa
This is the quintessential dosa that can be found at every stall, every Shiv Sagar, and every local Kannadiga or non-Kannadiga restaurant.
Made with the chana dal and rice batter, masala dosa can be filled with hundreds of different fillings. It’s usually eaten with sambhar and coconut chutney and/or red chutney. The latter is made with roasted chana dal a.k.a Bengal gram and with or without coconut and garlic.
This dosa is a bit soft on the inside but crunchy on the outside and is one of the thick dosas.
Mysore Masala Dosa
The main difference between Mysore masala dosa and Karnataka masala dosa is that the Mysore version is first basted with a red chili garlic chutney before any fillings are put inside. It’s eaten with sambhar and coconut (white) and chana dal (red) chutneys.
Originating from the Davangere area of Karnataka, benne dosa is normally made with butter (“benne” means butter). However, the butter can easily be replaced with oil.
It’s served with potato playa (a simple potato filling) and spicy coconut chutney. This is a crisp but light dosa.
Neer dosas are eaten with rich curries. These dosas, themselves plain and not spiced, are thin and fluffy. Neer means “water”, so the name of this dosa translates to “water dosa”.
Neer dosas are made with ground rice batter without any fermentation. These super soft dosas are great for dipping in dal or any vegan curry. They are usually served with veg sagu or vegetable/potato kurma. Kurma may contain cream or yogurt, so check before dipping in.
Set dosas are small, spongy dosas that are soft and not crunchy. They always come as a set of three dosas, because one would be too small to make a full meal. If you’re familiar with Ethiopian food, they’re similar to injera in appearance and texture.
Most restaurants serve set dosas with a thick vegetable curry, known as vegetable sagu. Soaking each bite of the set dosa in the curry is an experience, as the morsel soaks in the curry and the combination melts in the mouth.
Paper dosas can be thick or thin Karnataka dosas without any filling. The potato filling is sometimes served on the side, and the dosa may or may not be smeared with a spicy garlic powder made with chana dal and urad dal, known as podi.
These dosas are eaten with sambhar as well as coconut and other chutneys. Keep in mind that paper dosas are usually longer (sometimes much longer) than other dosas. Some might call paper dosa “giant dosa”.
The name says it all. Open dosas are open like a crêpe that has fallen open so that all the ingredients can be seen. Typically, when you order an open dosa you would be served a crispy dosa loaded with podi and potato stuffing fried in curry leaves.
It’s eaten with chutney and sambhar like the regular masala and paper dosas. Similar to Karnataka masala dosa, open dosas are medium-thick and soft on the inside but crunchy on the outside.
Rava dosas are made using rava, also known as sooji or semolina, and are available at every dosa shop. These are made instantly without fermenting the batter and come crispier than all other kinds of dosas.
Varieties of rava dosa include onion rava dosa, rava masala dosa and rava plain dosa. They are eaten with sagu and red or white chutney.
Though all Karnataka dosas come with some curries, sagu, korma, sambhar, and/or chutneys, they are so well-made and flavorful that these dosas can also be eaten plain.
Or if you’re craving something sweet, try dosa with some sugar or jaggery powder as a unique vegan Indian dessert.
Fillings of Karnataka Dosas
Karnataka is known for the “99 masala dosa stalls” that serve as many as 99 different varieties of dosa. The stall keepers will, in fact, make any kind of masala dosa as long as they have the filling on hand.
Here are just some of the stuffings that are used in Karnataka:
1. Pea and mushroom
3. Spinach and mushroom
4. Baby corn and mushroom
5. Mixed vegetables
6. Noodles (yes, that really happens)
7. Pav bhaji (a popular Maharashtrian spicy, mashed vegetable curry loaded with garlic and a special masala)
The sky’s the limit! Pick up any vegetables and make your own mix, or ask the dosa maker to mix and match for you.
All the dosas are cooked on a cast iron pan or flat surface, or in non-stick pans at home.
Places to Eat Dosa
Dosas can be found on every street corner in Karnataka. The specific type of dosa would vary from place to place, but you can’t go through a village or a street without finding dosa.
Some of the most popular and traditional places to eat dosas in Karnataka are:
Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, more popularly known as MTR, was established in 1924 and is one of the oldest and most popular vegetarian restaurants in Bangalore. Their locations are mostly found in Bangalore and in another city called Udupi.
Shiv Sagar Restaurants
These are ubiquitous restaurants and hotels serving both North Indian and South Indian food, depending on the time of day. Shiv Sagar eateries are affordable, authentic, and found on every street.
Named after the Udupi cuisine of the town of Udupi in Karnataka, these restaurants are also easily found throughout the state. Dosa is said to have first originated in Udupi, so you have a good chance of finding it in Udupi restaurants in its most authentic form.
99 Varieties of Dosa
This chain of roadside dosa stalls has locations spread throughout the state and is a good place to eat Karnataka masala dosa.
Karnataka highways are dotted with big and small restaurants and stalls that serve dosas and other food. If you are ever on a road trip in Karnataka, do budget some extra time for those roadside stops to eat as many crunchy dosas as you can.
Many other Kannadiga or non-Kannadiga restaurants will make their particular variations of dosas. You have a better chance of finding dosa at Kannadiga places than non-Kannadiga ones, and the quality is likely to be better too.
Wherever you eat in Karnataka, be sure to ask if the dosas or the curries and chutneys contain any butter, ghee, yoghurt or cheese. The vegan movement in India is still young, so not all restaurant staff are familiar with the concept.
But if you say you’re vegetarian and then list all the dairy products you don’t eat, they’ll be happy to point out the vegan options available.
Have you had dosa before? Which variety do you love? Please let us know in the comments.