Nash Patel grew up watching his mother cook. In their kitchen in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, he learned as she made egg fried rice with cilantro, lime and mint; moth beans called matki; “junglee” pulao; and dosas, a savory south Indian breakfast crepe.
Later, when he moved to America, he mimicked the way she poured batter onto the hot pan and spread it in concentric circles, sometimes until it grew as wide as a foot and a half. But Patel still saw the dosa as an everyday food. So when he moved to Vermont in 2009 and started making Indian food for the farmers market in Brattleboro, he turned to the other dishes in his mother’s repertoire, like Anglo-Indian pepper water and the egg rice preparation. Patel’s wife, food writer Leda Scheintaub, however, remembered the first time her husband had made a dosa for her at home. “I had a feeling that dosa would be a hit,” she said.
In 2014, when they launched their food truck Dosa Kitchen, it was clear that dosas weren’t just any ordinary food. “It’s becoming a craze,” Scheintaub said.
Unique among India’s breathtakingly vast food culture, the food of the five southern states — Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana — is known for fresh, bold flavors inherent to locally grown spices and crops, like toasted cloves and cassia bark, dried red chiles, and crushed peppercorns. It’s grated coconut stirred into a medley of vegetables; it’s the crackle of mustard seeds and curry leaves tempered in hot oil; it’s a fiery Andhra-style fried chicken; and it’s tamarind’s balance of sweet and sour. It’s a food that ebbs and flows through hundreds of regional variations made in homes across the south — and it’s rarely on the menu in America.
Indian food in America is far more associated with $9.99 buffets and takeout joints cooking up sad versions of north Indian curries from Delhi and Punjab. Krishnendu Ray, the chair of New York University’s food studies department, says there are roughly 400 Indian restaurants in New York City, and only around 50 of them serve some kind of south Indian food, though there are telling signs of a growing presence of south Indians in the country. Telangana and Andhra account for the most Indian students sent to schools in the U.S. every year, and Telugu- and Tamil-speaking Indian Americans make up a significant portion of the IT sector. According to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 780,000 people speak Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, or Malayalam at home across the U.S., though that number is likely much higher in reality.
But in the grand scheme of south India’s woeful absence from America’s many Indian restaurants, there’s a single standard-bearer that saves India’s southern cuisine from complete omission: the dosa. It’s often sold to Western audiences via shorthand: It only takes a cursory internet search to find dosa often described as an Indian crepe. This past summer, the Daily Beast asked, “Is the Indian dosa the next tortilla?” and Saveur dedicated a six-page spread to its preparation, extolling the “thin, sometimes massive crepes.”
The crepe and tortilla comparisons are accurate in that it’s flat, roundish, and serves as a vehicle for various accompaniments, mostly savory. Dosas are also vegan, gluten free, and naturally fermented (tradition says using your hand to stir the batter is key to kickstarting the fermentation process). While the food-media buzz might be new, dosas have been a part of south Indian cooking for centuries, mentioned as early as the sixth century A.D. in ancient literature composed by Tamil scholars. Typically a breakfast food — though it’s usually presented as a main course or a side at dinner in the U.S. — it’s made of a thick batter of ground rice and lentils, poured onto a flat pan (a tawa in India, but a griddle works just fine), and cooked until one side crisps into an even brown, while the other side retains a soft, sponge-like texture with slightly sour notes. Dosas are frequently served alongside at least two chutneys and a bowl of searing-hot sambar, a kind of lentil and vegetable stew. Masala dosa, one of the most popular preparations of dosa, is filled with a turmeric-stained spicy potato fry. To Scheintaub, of Dosa Kitchen, it’s “a gateway to south Indian food.”
Before the dosa began its journey to America, it had already spread across India, beyond the borders of the southern states, to become a beloved breakfast food. It was cheap and delicious, and quickly became a street-food favorite. As more and more Indians migrated to the United States, they brought a craving for dosas with them.
In 2002, the Chennai, Tamil-based restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan recognized two things about south Indians and their food: There were a lot of south Indians in the Bay Area, and the food they grew up with was nowhere to be found. At the time, the most authentic south Indian food available in scattered restaurants across the States wasn’t authentic at all, said Shiva Kumaar, Saravana Bhavan’s managing director. Ray credits Saravana Bhavan for standardizing the quality of south Indian food stateside.
The chain famously opens in cities with large Indian communities, and the United States, with its growing population of Indians moving for jobs in the tech sector (Indians recently accounted for 75 percent of approved H-1B work visas to the U.S in 2017), seemed an obvious choice. The franchise opened its first U.S. location in Sunnyvale, bringing chefs with more than a decade of experience from Chennai to California. “No north Indian, no naan” was the concept, says Shiva Kumaar. Dosas weren’t just important to the success of Saravana Bhavan, they were integral to the very idea of it: Imagine a diner without fried eggs or a sports bar without wings. If the chain wanted to serve authentic south-Indian vegetarian food, dosas were crucial.
The chain quickly discovered a market for its cuisine and its popularity soared. Three years later, Saravana Bhavan opened a new location on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, and eventually more than a dozen across the country. Though there were other smaller south Indian restaurants before Saravana Bhavan, the franchise standardized the experience of south Indian tiffin — an Indian-English word for breakfast or a light lunch. “It’s what McDonald’s is to a hamburger. Or Chipotle is to a rice bowl,” Ray says. With more than two dozen dosas on the menu, and a litany of other south Indian favorites, like uthappams and idlis (dosa’s steamed cousin, made from the same, slightly thicker batter), Saravana Bhavan reminded Indians abroad why they love dosas and showed everyone else why they should.
While Saravana Bhavan (whose wide-ranging story famously includes its owner being charged with murder) was replicating the model it had created in Chennai — fast casual, canteen-style, vegetarian and nonalcoholic — Anjan and Emily Mitra were thinking of a very different style of south Indian restaurant. In 2005, taking the name of the food that inspired their dream, they opened DOSA in the Mission District, which bills itself as the first south Indian restaurant in San Francisco. “This is the crepe that put southern India on the culinary map around the world,” Emily Mitra said. But this wasn’t the no-frills experience of a chain restaurant or a cheap buffet. In some cases, the menu reads like any dosa joint in India — paper masala and Mysore masala dosa among the favorites — but then there’s also habanero mango masala dosa (with a “very hot” warning), dark-chocolate dosa and roasted-mushroom uthappam. This was going to be a modern Indian restaurant, with an urban, electric vibe imported from Mumbai, where Anjan grew up; a cocktail bar; a wine list; and a focus on regional south Indian cuisine.
After 12 years in business, they even veered into the fast-casual model. Last December, the Mitras expanded into Oakland with Dosa by DOSA. It’s cheaper and more relaxed than the original upscale DOSA, while trying to stay true to Mitra’s vision: a trendy aesthetic, with sleek decor, a full bar, and a quest to bring southern regional Indian food to a wider audience. Once again, dosas had proven capable of leading that charge.
On a recent Sunday morning in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, my husband and I headed to Central Tiffin Room, a famed restaurant in the state’s capital city, Bengaluru, which for more than 80 years has put dosa on the map. It’s changed management twice and was later renamed Shri Sagar, but Bangaloreans are stubborn when it comes to name changes, so it’s still known as CTR. The eatery is especially known for its masala dosa. My husband and I ordered three butter-laden masala dosas and two filter coffees, and our bill was 208 rupees, or just under $3 as I write this. In New York, the price of a single dosa is almost five times that, a vast difference that’s enough for most immigrants to balk even if there’s an obvious cost to importing quality and expertise (not to mention rent). For Indians, though, it’s a hard fact to swallow, and one that USA-based restaurateurs need to combat every day.
“People are totally willing to spend $25 on pasta,” said Sheila Bommakanti, who co-owns Tiffin Asha in Portland, Oregon, “but if you give them a dosa that’s 18 inches in diameter, there’s sticker shock.”
Already on its way to becoming a staple on Indian menus across America, dosas are now at the forefront of a new wave of south Indian cooking stateside. San Francisco’s Rasa was awarded a Michelin star in the 2016 guide for its focus on south Indian coastal cuisine, not to mention its “appropriately paper-thin and shatteringly crisp” dosas. The late Anthony Bourdain heaped praise on Preeti Mistry and her now-closed Juhu Beach Club, known for its brunchtime dosa waffles. Scheintaub and Patel took the recipes from their Vermont food truck and published the first U.S.-based dosa cookbook called Dosa Kitchen this summer. Tiffin Asha, whose website implores you to join the “dosa revolution,” was named one of 2017’s best new restaurants in the country by Thrillist.
“Indian food in America has been branded for years to look a certain way. It’s going to take time for people to learn,” said Bommakanti. Tiffin Asha’s pricing is more aligned with newer alternatives in Indian cuisine, like Santa Fe’s Paper Dosa, than it is with a buffet; its offerings blend Bommakanti’s roots in Andhra Pradesh and American chef Elizabeth Golay’s take on the cuisine, with fried idli wedges and dosas with chicken pakoras and pickled kale. “We are slowly but surely going to change the way people think about Indian food.”
Still, there’s a risk in opening a southern Indian restaurant in a country where Indian food means something else entirely. Dosa Kitchen has been open since 2014, yet it still gets requests for stereotypically North Indian dishes. “‘Do you have chicken tikka masala? Do you have saag paneer?’ It took some education and still does,” Scheintaub said.
“We’ve had customers walk in, [expect] us to be something different, and walk out,” said Golay. Even so, these restaurateurs are convinced that now is the time to introduce American diners to south Indian cooking.
And they’re doing it by bringing a part of themselves to a great cuisine. Patel and Scheintaub combined their Hyderabadi and Manhattan Jewish roots to create a dosa blintz. Golay, Bommakanti’s wife and partner in Tiffin Asha, grew up in Washington state and carries her upbringing and culinary training to the Portland restaurant. Mistry’s style of cooking comes from her ties to Oakland, but also Ohio, London, and Gujarat. What they aren’t doing is dumbing down their dishes or taming spicy food to appeal to the lowest common American palate. Though they may be using Nutella and hot dogs and kale, they’re sticking to traditional principles that make south Indian food what it is. So, yes, the sambar is spicy and you will stick your hand in the dosa batter to mix it. “I might be putting this batter in the waffle maker, but I’m going to make it in a traditional way,” Mistry said.
This new crop of restaurants, and the trends they bring to the table, also suggests that the dosa’s job as an envoy is nearly complete. Last year, Food & Wine followed the rise of southern-Indian-inspired dishes in high-end Indian eateries like New York City’s Junoon and D.C.’s Rasika West End. “Within chef circles, there’s a really big interest in south India,” Mistry noted.
In its review of Anjan and Emily Mitra’s newer fast-casual eatery in Oakland, the East Bay Express wrote, “It’s entirely possible to dine at Dosa by DOSA without ever eating a dosa.” And at their San Francisco restaurant, the Mitras have served Kerala-focused fare, and they’re planning menus around food from Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region.
“We want to deep-dive into different regions of south India,” Anjan Mitra said. “Our mission now has been to highlight that. It’s not just dosas anymore.”
Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance food journalist based in Bengaluru. Her work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Taste, Roads & Kingdoms, and Vice Munchies. Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan