Two Rajeshwari masalas and an SI Bharathan! Go to any restaurant and try ordering them. Chances are you may get all of them, not from the restaurant, but most likely from the nearest police station!
Well, the Rajeshwari and Bharathan here are no caricatures or troll-material. They just happen to be, of all things, the names of two dosas made popular by the ingenuity of Kochi’s Pai Brothers, the king-makers of dosas, whose dosa lexicon sports 166 varieties of the moon-faced soft roti.
It was Manorama Traveller who threw open the Pai kitchen for dosa aficionados to pick and choose from a wide platter of Rajeshwaris to Bharathans, to Kuttis and Dundus.
They say the culture of a place can be defined by its food preferences, or cuisine. If that’s so, Kerala’s identity can be tied to the ubiquitous dosa, that soft, round and delicious stuff which turns a full moon when spread over a tawa.
For years, the humble dosa stayed as it was in its original shape, size and texture till innovative folks like the Pai Brothers tweaked the batter to bring in fresh flavours and add-ons and baptizing them with the zaniest of names like Rajeshwari masala, SI Bharathan, Four-in-One, Kutti Masala and Dundu, to name just a crazy few.
By the time Traveller hit the Pai joint, it was well past afternoon. Lunch was over and dosa time had just begun. The kitchen was abuzz with dosa frenzy.
Salt and Pepper
Kitchen-head, chef and dosa specialist Devananda Prabhu introduced his favourite, Salt and Pepper, first. Salt and Pepper, incidentally, came from the Pai kitchen for the first time to coincide with Ashiq Abu’s film of the same name. Apart from the names it holds, there’s a wee bit of other stuff that goes into its making.
Prabhu was in action. He spread the thick, ground batter on the tawa and surveyed his creation with a smile. The dosa was almost half done, with the bubbles winking on them, when our chef sprinkled pepper over it. He then juggled with five quails eggs and broke them one by one on to the heart of the dosa. Before the yellow yolk could harden, Devanand deftly transferred his creation on to a plate.
Cooking time: Just about a minute. Unbelievable!
The dish was every bit tasty, with the batter, the yolk and the pepper forming a deadly combination.
How designer dosas evolved?
Now for the 'designer dosa' and a small story. Years ago, Padmanabha Pai and wife Manikyam, from Mala, in Thrissur, left their village for the urban clime of Kochi. Experts in cooking and catering, they set off on that note. Their yummy dosas soon became a hit with Kochiites, not just for their taste, but for the very reasonable rates they could be had for. The dosas began taking fresh avatars, all because the Pai kids found the same dosa on the same tawa, with the same sambar every day dull and boring.
Therefore, the Pai brothers, Narasimha Pai, Purushothama Pai, Ananda Pai and Shivananda Pai, put their heads together and decided to re-invent the dosa concept. The first out-of-the-box dosa thus had a fresh egg broken onto its crackling face. That was the first egg dosa, patented and copyrighted by the Pai Brothers.
In the midst of the stories came the chocolate-cashew dosa, as dark as chocolate and as sweet with a heavy garnish of cashew nuts. A full layer a chocolate clung to the dosa. A coating of chammanthi made it all the more exotic.
Coconut milkshake dosa
For those wondering why this brouhaha over something as unglamorous as dosa, here’s how to whip up a coconut milkshake dosa.
Soak a kg of raw rice and grind it well. Husk three tender coconuts and set aside the coconut water. Scrape the coconut and grind it well. Mix the batter with the coconut water, place it of a flame and keep stirring till the batter becomes thick. Add a pinch of cumin (jeerakam) and salt. The batter should not be allowed to ferment.
Devananda smiles at his recipe. None of the 166 Pai recipes is from any book or the Net. They’re all from the Pai family repertoire, collected and stored over the last 29 years.
Cashew masala dosa
Here’s a treat for the vegans …the Kancheepuram cashew masala dosa. This dosa is the daily diet in Kancheepuram’s agraharams, where the batter is ground to the right constituency and the dosas served to the Brahmins there along with tomato and coconut chutney. This dosa gets transformed in the deft hands of the brothers who give it a rich flavour with cashew nuts, masalas, and chutneys. The dosa is thinly spread on to the tawa, over which tomato puree is spread and then covered with potato masala. This is then garnished with a lavish spread of cashew nuts. This exotic one needs no chutney or sambar to go with it.
Kochi’s flood of food joints and its iconoclastic “thattukadas” were but popular afterthoughts of the senior Pai Brothers’ dosa revolution.
Dosa is no thickly spread out appam. To know the truth of this, you’ll have to eat the Pai brothers’ “Thattile kutti dosa”. The dosa’s taste and texture lie in the way the rice and urud dal are ground. Walk into a Pie joint in droves and order your stuff. Just three minutes and hey presto, 15 people are served 'thattu' dosas. Newly deigned dosas? Just three minutes; eight can gorge on them. Here at Pai Brothers, you don’t have to order and then kill time.
Now for the Four-in-One. Devanand spreads out the dosa on the tawa. A lavish helping of ghee over it followed by a spread of chopped tomatoes. Then comes a sprinkling of masalas over which Devanand breaks four eggs. A couple of seconds more and he scrapes the dosa off the tawa and you have a plate of four-in-one. An omelet or a dosa? Either way, it tastes and feels well.
The Leaf dosa is yet another Pai specialty. Red chillies, jeerakam, turmeric and asafetida are ground along with soaked rice. Mix muringa (drumstick leaves) into the batter and fry the dosa.
The chappathi-special potato masala is another hit from the Pai kitchen.
Here's how to make it: Chop up boiled potatoes and set them aside. Add chopped big onions into them. Sauté green chillies, ginger and curry leaves along with spluttered mustard and a pinch of urud dal. When the urud dal turns almost brown add in the potato mix and sauté well. Drop in a pinch of turmeric and the potato masala is ready.
The brothers have a long list of celebrities from tinsel-town and politics, regulars, at their dosa joints. They all come back for dosa encores because of the pure, unadulterated stuff we serve, says young Pai brother Pradeep.
There was a time when the Pai family would cart the home-ground batter on their cycles and head for the joint. Those were tough days. But that’s history. The Pai Brothers have three restaurants in Kochi and a shop in Dubai today. There are two other outlets, one at Kadavanthra and the other at Edappally. The kitchen which comes alive by 9 in the morning goes to sleep only by 2.30 am the next day!
Meanwhile, the happy Traveller, immersed in the dosa wonders was stunned to see Devananad turning out platter after platter of Mirchi Paneer Masala, Special Five in One, Lasoon Onion Kada Bullseye, Onion Podi Bullyseye and a steady stream of special dosas, all within the batting of an eyelid.
It’s raining dosas here in Pai world -- all 166 of them -- different in taste, colour, and flavour.