American Dosa

A devout dosa fan finds salvation in pagan lands

Published: Dec 14, 2010
American Dosa
Image: N.S. Ramnath

While gourmet friends run their confused fingers over long menus, agonising over choices of appetisers, entrées and desserts, I am calm and cool. Not for me this frenzied experimentation. When the waiter comes around with his pad, after my friends stutter through their orders, I look the man in the eye and say, “Masala Dosa.”

Nothing, in my opinion, lends itself to so many improvisations as a masala dosa does. You only have to travel around the south in India to appreciate how, even while retaining its name and the core characteristics, a dosa can be so different. In Chennai, for example, dosas tend to be thin, crispy and so long that they jut out of the plate. In Bangalore, they tend to be thick and dark, often with a dash of butter skiing down its hot surface. Sambhar is de rigueur in Chennai. In Bangalore, you have to ask for it. Go west, to Mysore or Udipi, and the style gets closer to Tamil Nadu’s. On the east, as you step into dry and rocky Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, you have to be prepared for a sharp bite in your tongue thanks to a generous smear of “gun powder” on the softer side of the dosa.

What generally passes for Indian food abroad is often North Indian, usually Punjabi. That’s justifiable, especially in a place like New York; less than four percent of the city’s Indians are South Indian in origin. So dosas were the last thing I expected to find in NYC.

As it turned out, they were the first thing I had after I landed. That evening was crisp and cold. My cousin had come down to show me around. As we walked around Times Square, Grand Central and the Empire State Building, I said to him, “There aren’t too many Indians walking around here.” He smiled. “It’s true. But wait, let me take you to my favourite place.”

Lexington Avenue has so many Indian restaurants — with evocative names like Cardamom, Roomali, Pongal, Tiffin Wallah, Curry Leaf, Yogi’s Kitchen — that the neighbourhood is called ‘Curry Hill’. We stopped at a restaurant called Chennai Garden, which was so understated, I would have probably missed it. Inside, most of the patrons seemed to be Indians, except in a corner, a man with a skull cap, busy talking to a white girl. We found ourselves a table right in the middle. And it was during the course of the meal — I had ordered Chennai thali, a combination of idli, vada, masala dosa, uthapam and a sweet, and my cousin, a masala dosa — that I realised I had a mission: I had to get a taste of the best dosa in New York.

There are quite a few places to explore. Not just obvious choices like restaurants; one should also, for instance, visit temples. The next day we took the subway and then a bus to Bowne Street at Flushing, Queens, east of Manhattan. The canteen at the Ganesha temple there has successfully recreated a slice of India: A man near the counter was shouting out the orders; a woman dressed in a churidhar-kurta was feeding her son crushed idlis, while her husband was chatting away on a phone; and the dosa, it could have been from any restaurant in Chennai, if a bit more spicy.  

It was like listening to someone singing Kurai Ondrum Illai exactly like M.S. Subbalakshmi. “I want something distinctly New York,” I told my cousin. He said, “Then, you should try street food. The best for dosas is near Washington Square Park: NY Dosas, run by a friendly fellow called Thiru Kumar. Easy to find.”

I made my pilgrimage with a chirpy friend from Indonesia.

Thiru Kumar, a lean man with a big moustache and a bigger smile, isn’t Indian. He was a driving instructor in Sri Lanka before he emigrated to USA in 1995. In New York, he did some odd jobs for a while before getting a license to set up his cart near Washington Park. That was many years ago. Today, he is a legend in the making, and especially popular with the students from the nearby New York University. In 2007, he won the Vendy Award for the best street food in New York.

 mg_40612_dosa_vendor_280x210.jpg

South Indian Fast-Food Heavenly dosa by Washington Park

Thiru Kumar is a paragon of customer relations; he likes to engage with you while he is on his job. As he works, with the efficiency of a Formula One team at a pit stop, he gets you involved in your food decisions. ‘Vegan’ is a word he throws in often, and he rounds off the performance with: “Would you like to have your dosas in an eco friendly plate?”

I took a non-eco friendly box, and carried it off to one of the benches inside the park. It was a pleasant day; children were chasing each other around the fountain; a sad-looking man was feeding giant squirrels, calling each of them by name; a young Chinese man was lost in his iPod’s music; many walkers had brought their dogs with them; a couple, oblivious to all the bustle, were deep in conversation, their eyes focussed only on each other. Perfect.

I opened up the box. The dosa was cut into four pieces, and the coconut chutney and sambhar were in separate cups. I tore off a piece of dosa, dipped it into the sambhar and placed it in my mouth, and let one sensation after another settle in... the heat from the sambhar (made more heavenly by the crisp, cold breeze), the outer crispiness, then the softness, then the familiar taste and texture of boiled potato, smashed and fried with spices. It had everything a masala dosa must have, but it was also distinctly American; there was no hint of butter or ghee, or even of sunflower oil — I think he used olive oil — and then, the fresh taste of uncooked lettuce!

I looked at my friend. She was all smiles. “This is good,” she said. She closed her eyes for a few seconds. “Yes, this is good.  Someday I should come to India and see how it tastes there.”

I smiled back. My religion had a new follower.

(This story appears in the 17 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Show More
Post Your Comment
Required
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    In fact Many Americans like Indian food. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    on Dec 5, 2015
  • Sumita

    Fabulous!

    on Dec 20, 2010
One in A Million - Forbes India at the Derby
Facebook's Inspired Thinking