Indian street food chronicles: doughnuts.

I enjoy Indian cooking at home, but before today, all I had in my repertoire were a handful of basic curries I picked out of Madhur Jaffrey’s books a few years ago. Those are great, but Steve and I share an absolute love of chaat-- Indian junk food. When we crave Indian food, we crave savory goodies like dosas (paper thin fermented lentil crepes), bhel puri (puffed rice salad), and dahi vada (lentil donuts) that are usually accompanied by various chutneys. We are lucky to have access to very good Indian food in Portland thanks to Intel’s presence here, but I’m busting to recreate some of this stuff at home.

First challenge: dahi vada. Unlike the doughnuts we eat here in the U.S., vada are (dare I say it) kind of healthy. I looked at about a dozen recipes, and mixed and matched to get the flavor I wanted. I kept my vada simple; I washed and sorted a cup of urad dal (black gram lentils w/o the skin) overnight, drained them, and then pulverized them into a thick batter with only the water they’d already absorbed. My only seasoning was salt and pepper. I deep-fried tbsp-sized balls of batter until golden brown, and then transfered them to cool water. This seemed odd to me, as though I’d end up with mushy vada, but all the recipes included this step. After a couple of minutes, I removed them from the water, squeezed out any excess, and dried them on paper towels. All the oil stays behind in the water, and the resulting vada are perfect-- golden brown, with gently crisp exteriors and soft, bready interiors.

The bigger challenge was the dahi. Dahi is the Indian word for yogurt, and it’s what gives this dish its lush texture. No two recipes are the same, and no two Indian restaurants make the same dahi for dahi vada. I’ve never had a better version than Craig Plainfield makes here in Portland, so I tried to recreate the flavors from memory. I used roasted green chiles, freshly grated ginger, coriander, and a little mustard seed, adding a small amount of sugar to balance out the yogurt’s natural tartness. I came close, but it’s off somehow. Plainfield’s has a tang that my brain interprets as mustard, but I’m not sure that’s it. I also used way too much fresh ginger. While I don’t mind the burn, it’s just wrong for this dish. All in all, it was a very successful first effort and I’m looking forward to tweaking the flavors in the next batch of dahi.

Tangential aside #1 - I’ve always thought of this as junk food, but making it at home was a real eye-opener. This is no bag of fritos. Lentils… yogurt… chiles… ginger… spices. That’s all. They’re deep fried, but they crisp almost immediately in the hot oil and there’s no obvious grease in the finished product.

Tangential aside #2 - Craig Plainfield also maintains a fantastic wine cellar-- it’s got to be one of the finest in the city. Granted, it’s a small city, but his wine cellar is deep and fairly priced. And it’s the only place in town where I can get my great-great-grandfather’s birth year madeira poured by the ounce.

Next up: mysore masala dosas. These may require a new kitchen.

I’ve already sent this to Heidi - sounds SO good…

Looks delicious! Coincidentally I am in India right now, although not in Bombay or Delhi which is where this type of street food is more common.

There is an actual Indian donut - medhu wada. You can see them here:

And here in sambar, which is like a thin runny spicy sauce, which is how you eat them (for breakfast, no less):

I think of vada as more of a sort of Indian lentil dumpling… Anyway, if I get around to it I’ll post some pics of food from here. I still never put up the pics from my last trip, but I plan to.

I will say that in all of my travels, this is the only place where it would take several lifetimes of eating to fully appreciate and understand the 1000s of variations on dishes. They vary by state, by village, by family, by cook. And mother’s version is always the best.

Thanks Aaron-- I love sambar too, although I’ve had it primarily with dosas or idli. Medhu vada recipes that I’m seeing look almost the same as the one I used for dahi vada, but the process of forming the paste into that classic donut shape looks daunting. I have two cups of urad dal soaking right now; I will try it tomorrow afternoon and report back.

Please, please, please post food pics from your trips! Are you in Goa? There have got to be plenty of great food porn opportunities there.

I am in Goa, but it’s the off-season and most places are closed. The best thing I’ve eaten so far is what I’m calling “fish bacon.” Its basically strips of “Bombay Duck” (some kind of fish) fried crispy. Literally tastes like fish bacon. Very fatty and yummy.

When I get home I’ll post some pics… the Internet situation here is pretty crummy.

The trick with the medu vada is to get them brown and slightly crispy on the outside, and more airy on the inside. I don’t really like them, but they are literally the Indian savoury donut! Also, some I’ve had have mustard seeds in them. Eat them with mint chutney!

I absolutely adore Indian food, and I have never had their donuts before. I was a little worried that this was a dessert food, but it is not. It looks great. I would advise never eating Indian ‘desserts’ though. I know Aaron has disagreed with me on this in the past, but That part of the continent cannot do desserts at all.

Well done Melissa. I am drooling and craving Indian food. I spent 3 months in India and ate so much tasty street food. I was given, by a nice Indian family across from me on a train, the milk sweets that they make for desserts. I was pleasantly surprsied.

Bob, Steve agrees with you wholeheartedly. He spent a couple of months in India and fell in love with the people and the savory food, but he absolutely CRINGES at the desserts. I’m with Kimberly on this one-- I think the desserts, if not world class, can be very pleasant.

I’m eyeing that big bowl of soaking lentils and trying to muster the desire to shape them into proper doughnuts today, but it’s SUNNY outside for the first time in a week. Hmm.

You clearly have not had a good kheer pudding.

Have I? Indian desserts are disgusting, save for kulfi (condensed milk ice cream, ideally with pistachio!) and some people like the kheer and the other rice pudding-y thing they make in Bombay. None of it is to my liking. Leave the best desserts to the Euros, I say.

So, round two was an improvement on all counts. This time, I used the VitaMix instead of the food processor to puree the lentils. I worked in more air for a fluffier batter. I found several websites that described how to form donut shapes out of the sticky puree, but I tried it with one vada and it was more more trouble than it was worth-- at least to me. So I stuck to simply dropping tablespoon-sized lumps into the oil. Hey, this is how my favorite Indian place serves them too.

The extra air made a big improvement. These were both crisper on the outside and lighter on the inside than the first batch. For grins, I tried them warm, without the water bath. I know it’s not traditional and ups the calorie count, but they had the texture of Italian zeppole. I loved that.

I also changed the dahi. Less chile, less ginger, more coriander, and more mustard seed.

Aaron, have you ever made dosas? I know the process to make the batter is similar, but it has to ferment. I’d like to get that authentic flavor w/o poisoning my whole family [wink.gif]

Hmm… maybe I am thinking of someone else. My profession has a ton of Indian people in it (that is a big shock to everyone, I know) so I have had homecooked Indian food from many colleagues. The food is nothing short of awesome and the culture is very cool. I have had many of the desserts, but like Steve I cringe at even the stuff that is raved about. Poppy, I am willing to try anything when it comes to food but I won’t have high hopes.

Melissa, never made dosas. That whole veg Indian starch-on-starch thing is not really my thing… although I do crave dosas once in a while!

I agree with the starch-on-starch thing, which is why I prefer my dosas plain with sambar and chutney. We have one local place that has the best of both worlds-- a dosa lined with a nice, spicy smear of mysore spices but w/o potatoes.

A dosa stuffed with potatoes is like a falafel sandwich. I just can’t do it.