In search of the perfect dosa or South Indian pancake in NYC

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Folks, fasten your seatbelts, because we're headed to New York City for a dosa hunt. Dosas are a South Indian snack sort of like a crepe or pancake. And the leader of our hunt is New Yorker Amrit Singh. He runs the indie music news site Stereogum. But lately he's turned to filmmaking to explore issues of identity for Indians in America. And what better way to do that than to embark on a quest for the perfect lentil-rice pancake?

[film clip]

Alan Palomo: Hey, how's it going? Pretty good, pretty good. Just in a van on a dosa hunt with a bunch of Indian dudes.

Speaker 2: Happens all the time.

[end film clip]

Werman: The quest involved Singh and a group of his musician friends riding around New York in a decked-out van complete with disco ball, all of it filmed to make a documentary called Dosa Hunt. I was five minutes into watching it and knew I was going to have to eat a dosa for lunch. Here's how Amrit Singh describes the film's culinary star.

Amrit Singh: Dosa is a crepe or pancake-like food made of a fermented rice and lentil batter. The lentil is a black dal called urad dal. It's generally served with a potato mixture that's spicy called aloo masala, and an assortment of condiments that are called chutneys and a vegetable stew called sambar. It's also often served with something called milagai podi, which is really nice for the spice nuts out there. It's roasted dry chiles, often some pepper and salt, and it's mixed into a mixture with sesame oil, generally. Sometimes ghee butter, but otherwise it's a vegan dish, it's gluten free. It makes it a great dish for these times where everyone's discovering all their food allergies and restrictions.

Werman: Right. It seems fairly orthodox because at one point Alan Palomo, the one Mexican guy in the group, talks about liking his dosa with cheese and everybody protests. Here's that scene.

[film clip]

Alan Palomo: You're not supposed to put cheese on it?

Speaker 2: No.

Speaker 3: It's just untraditional.

Speaker 4: It's not traditional.

Alan Palomo: It's not traditional, but that doesn't mean it's not good.

[end film clip]

Werman: Okay, so no cheese. So is there kind of just a straight-on way that dosa is served?

Singh: Well,it's worth mentioning that Alan was along for the ride because he was a neophyte. He had never had a dosa before. He is Mexican, as you'd mentioned, and his band is called Neon Indian, so we made him an honorary Indian for the day. Cheese typically is not an authentic portion of the dosa experience and that kind of set off the entire dosa hunt. When Rostam Batmanglij, who plays in the band called Vampire Weekend, tweeted about a dosa that he had. He tweeted very simply, "eating a dosa." It came at a time when I was fetishizing the dish myself, I was on a dosa hunt. I'm North Indian and the food is South Indian, so I didn't grow up eating it. And I wrote back immediately. I asked which kind. He said, well, I'm having one that has arugula and jack cheese and it's from the Hampton Chutney Company. So now we have, and Rostam's Persian, so I'm like, we have a Persian-American who's having a fusion dosa with cheese in it at a place named after the Hamptons, and this is an issue. We need to go for dosa some time.

Werman: Right. Well, it makes sense. The tag line for the film, though, is "The greatest hunt for South Indian food in New York City ever committed to film." Isn't this the only hunt for South Indian food in New York City?

Singh: Exactly. It's so bold, it's such a bold claim, that it makes it much easier given the fact that it is the only one that's ever happened.

Werman: As for the sambar, the sauce, I want our listeners to hear at this point in the film where Anand Wilder from the band Yeasayer, actually calls his mom to ask about one vegetable that you eat with sambar.

[film clip]

Anand Wilder: Mom, you're on speaker phone.

Anand's mom: Hello?

Several voices: Hello.

Mom: If you are in India, like in my house, we never have sambar without drumsticks.

Anand: What's the actual vegetable called?

Mom: It's called drumstick.

[end of film clip]

Werman: Yeah, it's called drumstick, but it's not chicken, and I doubt, I don't know what it is, but I doubt it even tastes like chicken, so what the heck is a drumstick?

Singh: It's a really interesting vegetable. It's somewhat akin to okra, it's got somewhat of a husk. It's thrown into the sambar, it gives it a certain flavor, and it's really fun to eat. Yeah, and we found out it was called saragova in the grocery store. This moment of confusion, this sort of cultural confusion, was very much what the film was designed to do. I mean this dosa hunt came about very organically from that Twitter exchange that I mentioned, which attracted members from Das Racist, Neon Indian, Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend. I myself run a website called Stereogum, which has been chronicling the rise of these bands for the last seven years. And I didn't grow up with people that looked like me in bands that I liked listening to, and I've often thought as these bands have come up and as I've developed friendships with them, that now must be amazing to be a fifteen-year-old brown kid and see guys that are operating in the fields of hip hop and jazz and synth rock and all that stuff and doing it so successfully. So getting us together felt momentous. Documenting it seemed like a natural idea, but the idea also was that this quest for this authentic dish would elicit the sorts of conversations and issues of culture and identity in an organic way. The food really became the device. And so this conversation with Anand's mom wasn't scripted, it was very organic and natural to the day, but it was very much at the heart of what the film was trying to say.

Werman: You guys are all clearly obsessed with dosas, but as you say this is also really about identity. None of you have Indian accents, you're all kind of hybrids really. And you could have copped to, at the beginning of the film, that you only recently discovered dosa.

Singh: Yeah, so I grew up in a North Indian family, my family was all born in Punjab, and after partition had kind of moved to different parts of India, but that's where my family comes from and that's the food that I grew up eating. It was when I had a dosa in Manhattan one day, when I moved to Manhattan as a young adult, that sort of blew me away. It was a humbling and mind-expanding experience, this dosa was, because I realized that I had been purporting to be an expert on Indian food, but really I'd conflated Indian with North Indian as I think many people in the West have, because the sorts of waves of immigration that came over in the '60s when the visa rules had been sort of changed and allowed for immigration in a new way, were primarily coming from North India, with respect to the south Asian continent and people here just began to equate those. And now you're seeing a sort of zeitgeistical faddish approach to dosa which is really great and it's sort of expanding people's understandings of what Indian culture is. That story is seen in my personal relationship to the culture too. So having this dosa as a young adult was like, I need to get more dosa, I need to know more about the country that I'm from.

Werman: Amrit Singh is the filmmaker behind the short documentary Dosa Hunt. Amrit, let's have dosa together some time. I think that'd be fun.

Singh: Marco, I'd love to do that some time. Let's do it.

[film clip]

Speaker: Can I have a masala dosa, one masala dosa, and one sugar cane juice, please. For here, please, yeah.