Thursday, August 4, 2011

Uthappams (South Indian lentil pancakes)

I just learned that my all-time favorite vegetarian South Indian restaurant, Madras Saravana Bhavan, is a chain. A chain with locations in Singapore, London, Paris, Chennai, Dubai, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Atlanta, and New York, among other super-cosmopolitan locales. But a chain all the same. How to react? I've had amazing Sri Lankan cuisine in Paris. I've had lick-your-fingers-and-squeal-in-delight delicious Bhojpuri cuisine in London. But, seriously, the very best South Indian I've ever had was in Atlanta at Madras Saravana Bhavan. If they're opening restaurants worldwide I guess they must be doing something right. Right? Truth be told, I don't usually trust that logic. But I've not had better vegetarian South Indian anywhere, so perhaps this is a logic that works if you're part of the vegetarian Indian transnational jet set? I don't know. In any case, I have been missing Atlanta and dreaming about those dosas and uthappams for years. Also, my mom has been on a soak-your-grains-before-you-cook-them kick for a little while now, so I've been interested in recipes that involve soaking and fermentation, which happens to be a staple in South Indian (and more specifically, Tamil) cuisine. The soaking and fermentation process makes grains and pulses more digestible and somehow produces a greater variety of amino acids (vegetarians and gluten-haters, pay attention!). It also creates a much more complex, interesting, flavor. Think sourdough vs.Wonder bread.

Anyhow, here's my recipe, very easy to make if you remember to prepare it a day in advance. You can use leftover batter as a starter to speed up the fermentation process with newer batches. And believe me, you'll want more. You'll want uthappams for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of your life. I don't have any urad dal in my pantry, so I substituted split peas and it came out delicious (and not too different from the uthappams I remember from Madras Saravana Bhavan). The veggie toppings can also be whatever you want them to be. In addition to the toppings I suggest below, you might also use grated carrots, scallions, julienned snow peas, or spinach.

2 cups basmati rice
1/2 cup urad dal (or substitute spit peas if you don't have access to an Indian grocery or are lazy, like me)
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
salt to taste
1/4 tsp baking soda

Toppings: tomato, onion, green chile, cilantro, mustard seeds, and/or whatever else you feel like.

Soak rice, urad dal (or split peas) and fenugreek seeds in water overnight. The next morning, using a blender, grind the soaked rice and dal into a fine paste, adding water (if necessary) to make a thick batter. Leave it in a warm place to ferment about 8 to 10 hours. If you have a yeast starter or an old batch of uthappam batter, you can add a few Tbs to the new batch to aid the fermentation process. Once fermented, you will notice that the batter has risen and bubbles appear on the top. Add salt and mix well. Just before preparing the uthappams, add baking soda and mix well.

Cook on an oiled griddle like you would pancakes. They should be about a 1/2 inch to a 3/4 inch thickness. After ladling the batter, drizzle a small amount of oil or ghee around the uthappam and top it with finely sliced onions and tomatoes, chopped cilantro, serrano chiles, and mustard seeds (optional). Flip once you can tell the uthappam is starting to brown on the bottom side. Cook for another two or three minutes, until the onions begin to brown, and serve hot with a cilantro or coconut chutney. I served mine with a cilantro chutney (kothimira pachadi) from Sailu's Kitchen, one of my very favorite Indian food blogs. I love this recipe. The cilantro is cooked briefly and ground up with roasted urad dal (I substituted moong dal) and chana dal, giving it a nice toasty nutty quality, balanced out by the fruity sourness of tamarind paste.

The batter just before cooking. See the little fermentation bubbles?
They taste best fresh off the griddle. Chris said these were *the* meal of summer 2011.
I want to put this chutney on everything, from poached eggs to pizza.

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