Madras Dosa House
5656 Fraser St
Recently my daughter told me that her favourite cuisine is South Indian vegetarian…this is after many years of sushi as here top choice when dining out. A couple of years ago, I had taken her to the Vancouver location of Saravanaa Bhavan – a restaurant chain hailing from the city of Chennai that specializes in the cuisine of Tamil Nadu. She was smitten. She always asks if we can dine there whenever we are nearby and she held here birthday party with her friends there recently. (She and a number of her friends are verging on vegetarianism). I am only too happy to oblige her.
Being a carnivore, I find Indian vegetarian food to be the only meatless food that truly satisfies me. Unlike the typical “beans and tofu” vegetarian cuisines endemic to this city, I truly do not miss meat at all when I eat this food. Also, I had traveled through that part of India a couple of decades ago and fell in love with the cuisine and had always wanted to explore it first hand. With impetus, I am now in the midst of exploring this cuisine with my daughter by learning to cook it. I would like her to grow up knowing that vegetarianism can actually be a delicious lifestyle. I have stocked my kitchen with the requisite pantry items – luckily all very easy to find here in Vancouver. I already had a number of great cookbooks (I’m a bit of a cookbook hound), and there is no shortage of websites from which you can learn this cuisine.
Indian cuisine is highly regional – perhaps the most regional in the world. Even within the relatively small area that defines “South India” – roughly including the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu ) the regional cuisines there can be further sub-divided into religious and tribal lines….often resulting in only subtle differences between certain dishes. I’ll probably get to discussing my explorations of these cuisines in future posts.
With that preamble out of the way…
Madras is the old name for what is now called Chennai in Tamil Nadu. I’ll be oversimplifying here: the cuisine is characterized by expertly prepared pulse (bean) dishes, rice, the use of coconut (meat, milk, and oil), tamarind for souring. The cuisine quite spicy, but it isn’t as fiercely hot as its reputation implies – a reputation primarily built on the blazing hot but one-note “Madras” curry which is really a British invention. I won’t expand further as Wikipedia provides an excellent primer to Tamil cuisine.
My favourite South Indian dishes are the savory cakes, breads and pancakes – idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes), vadai (lentil “donuts”), dosas (lentil, rice and cream of wheat crepes), uttapam (lentil and rice pancake) and others. All these are naturally leavened similar to sourdough. Naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts not only provide leavening, but also impart an unmistakable tang to the dish. These days, cooks take shortcuts and use buttermilk, yogurt and baking soda to achieve the same ends.
At Madras House, I have identified their signature dish as their very good onion rava dosa which made from a batter comprised of rice, lentils, and semolina (sooji/rava/cream of wheat). The crepe is crunchy and diaphanous with little windows transparency. You have a choice of fillings, but honestly, to have it plain, I believe is the best way to have it.
There are of course other places to have this dish, including Saravanaa Bhavan, House of Dosa (Kingsway), Chutney Villa, Desi Dosa Madras (Surrey), and a few others. While they all make decent plain dosa, their rava dosa are often thick and devoid of crunch.