When I Fell in Love with Dosa and Idli


Idli steamer graphic from Sandor Katz’s book, The Art of Fermentation

In 2006 I traveled to Tamil Nadu, a region in South India, to visit the long-time social experiment, Auroville.  Back in the 50s a French woman named, the Mother, and Pondicherry native, Sri Aurobindo, created a formula for harmonious living…they launched that vision in the real time with an intentional community.

When I visited Auroville, there were a little over 2000 people, half native Tamil and the other half Europeans, Americans, Russians, etc.  It was impressive.  It had its flaws, but they did pale in comparison to my country of origin, the US…or even, my home state of Mississippi.

How did I end up there?

I was living in San Francisco at the time.  I was working on my Masters in Geography…in which I delved into Vernacular Architecture and how behavior = environment = behavior.  I’m simplifying.  But, that’s what I got interested in.

I wanted to know why some building materials won over others.  Why did we design our living environments with such little soul?  What influenced land use and zoning laws?

Well yes, a grid lock of invested interests that are not creative or intelligent.  Greedy, if anything.

I saw a presentation at a local university, CIIS, and it was on Auroville.  I don’t even recall how I ended up there that night.  The guy presenting was from Auroville.  On one of his slides, I saw a 20-unit apartment complex at Auroville that was made with earthen bricks (CSEB – compressed, stabilized, earth bricks)…that used a ponding system for all of its sewage…and got its energy from the sun (solar panels).

Right then and there, I told myself I had to see this place.  With my graduate school research humming in the back of my mind (I never completed my studies, by the way, but that’s another story) and my current work glaring me in the face (I worked for an affordable housing developer), I had to see this 20-unit apartment complex, myself.

I was tired of people telling me alternatives weren’t possible, basically.  I realized that they only weren’t possible to people who think in rigid and entrenched ways.  Auroville, I knew, would provide me the means to see what is possible…what is creative…what is intelligent design.

So, this post is about dosa right?  Right, lol.  I promise I’ll get to it in a second!

It’s hard for me not to go down memory-lane as this was such a powerful time in my life.


I signed up for a course on CSEB (compressed, stabilized, earth brick) at the Auroville Earth Institute and I flew to India.  I was able to do so by selling some old gold jewelry of mine that I never wore anymore.

And, you know what, I SAW that 20-unit apartment complex made of 98% earth and only 2% cement and I LOVED it!  The people who lived there even used beneficial microorganisms to clean their toilets!!!  It was a life-changing experience for me.

No one could ever look me in the face and tell me that this could not be done.  I had seen it.  It’s all about intention, design, and human behavior.

(Dosa enters stage left)

I loved the course and met architects and designers from all over the world.  I also was able to introduce myself to the amazing, traditional food ways.

Idli sambar!  Dosa!  Uttapam!

Fermented rice and lentil goodness in so many forms!  Where had you been all of my life!?

No matter if I ate at a nice cafe in Auroville or at a place on the road between towns, the food was amazing.

Idli (steamed, fermented rice-lentil cakes) was always served with sambar.

Dosa (fermented rice-lentil pancakes) was always served with coconut chutney and a veggie/herb based chutney (like cilantro).

Uttapam (fermented rice-lentil pancakes with veggies) was always served with ghee.

And, I always ate on a banana leaf or a stainless steel plate (mostly banana leaves, though).

When I went back to San Francisco, I found a local restaurant that served authentic, South Indian food.  Normally, folks in the US have only eaten North Indian food.  It’s pretty hard to find a South Indian place.

Almost 15 years later, in my current town, I have found one place that makes Dosa and Uttapam.  Recently, I even explored making my own dosa batter with guidance from Sandor Katz’s awesome book on fermentation.

I admit, my sambar is just a dahl and not a true sambar.  But, a local South Indian friend told me that’s what she does to cheat, as well.  Apparently, a good sambar is hard to nail down.  I use dried coconut for my coconut chutney which would make someone in Southern India fall out of their chair (they only use fresh).  And, due to the size of my pan…I could not make the large, papery dosa that you normally eat…rather they turned out like pancakes.

Alas, here are my results…enjoy!


Dosa, coconut chutney, and sambar (well, dahl)




Soaking the rice, red lentils, fenugreek seed

STEP #1 – Per Sandor’s suggestion, I soak 2-3 parts white rice with 1 part red lentils (I normally do 1 1/2 cups white rice to 1/2 cup red lentils).  To this, I add 1 tbsp of fenugreek seeds (but not required).  I soak this overnight.


Sandor’s explanation

STEP #2 – The next day I add water so that there is about 1/2-1″ of water above the line of rice/lentil and toss all of that into the blender and blend until fully pureed (this is for making dosa which requires a thinner batter than idli).


Dosa batter fermenting (I did not blend/puree this batter as much as I normally do, thus, the chunkiness)


Dosa batter fully fermented (see how puffy it got!?) and ready to use…

STEP #3 – Let the batter ferment for 24-48 hours.  The speed of fermentation depends on how warm your kitchen is.


Dosa batter on the skillet

STEP #4 – Grease your skillet with coconut oil, stir in a little salt to taste in your batter, and then start making pancakes!


Sambar…erm…dahl simmering…

STEP #5 – Make your favorite tomato-based dahl to dip your dosa in and take huge slurps of while eating dosa.


Coconut chutney with dried coconut

STEP #6 – Make your coconut chutney.  I like this recipe.  I used harissa for the pepper as that’s all I had at the moment…this gave my chutney a kind of salmon color.

* You can also just make the dosa batter and add vegetables and make it more of a utthapam (pic below).  You don’t need to have sambar or coconut chutney to serve with this.  But, it’s nice to dip this in melted ghee or clarified butter.


Utthapam with grated carrot, peas, corn, onion, and kale…served with melted ghee…


I served the utthapam with an herbed farmer’s cheese made from raw milk kefir (it sat too long on the counter so I separated the curds and whey)…  I seasoned the farmer’s cheesed with dried nettles, local black sage, thyme, black pepper, and sea salt.




6 thoughts on “When I Fell in Love with Dosa and Idli

    • Thanks lockdown chef 🙂 I have been fine tuning things as I go…but at least I have begun the journey of understanding South India’s amazing culinary traditions…

    • Thanks Honor. Weird times, indeed. Sending you lots of nourishment as well……glad we are still in touch after all these years….

    • Thanks Jill! Let me know if you explore dosa and how it goes! We moved almost 2 weeks ago and are nesting nesting nesting! I look forward to seeing you again soon, cousin 🙂

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