10.20.11 Letting Off Steam

Curry leaves 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
This year, I hope to bring you with me a little more often into the world of South Asian cooking. Having traveled in India, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, I've been fortunate to experience many of these flavors in their countries of origin, but my real culinary knowledge of them I owe to Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, authors of two seminal—and well-thumbed—volumes: Hot Sour Salty Sweet and Mangoes & Curry Leaves. They track their recipes to the source, often cooking in humble homes alongside matriarchs of the region, and they really believe in simple authentic dishes. Mangoes & Curry Leaves features the cuisine of the Subcontinent—Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives—so you can imagine the rich variety. I'm sharing a recipe for dhokla, a Gujarati specialty that's essentially a steamed bread. The recipe looks long, but it's really a very simple process, and the result is light and delicious (and gluten-free). So you don't become discouraged about trying these recipes, please find a source for South Asian ingredients. A market in Little India? An online resource? It's exciting to try something new, and a great way to vary both your diet and your repertoire.
Ground dal 790 xxx
grinding the batter (my cuisinart is stained yellow from cooking with turmeric!)
This savory bread is made from a batter combining butterscotch-colored toovar dal (split dried pigeon peas) and white rice, though cornmeal is sometimes used. The dal and rice need to soak for 6 hours (or up to 24, if that's easier for you). It's ground into a batter that's mixed with a little water and yogurt (buttermilk would probably work fine) and then steamed to a dense, springy texture. A little baking soda helps it rise, though traditionally the batter would be left to ferment for 12 hours to gain natural leavening.
Steamed bread 790 xxx
i made mine in a cake pan
You'll need an 8" round cake pan and some kind of steamer that can hold it. One of these collapsible steamers works perfectly, and is a great kitchen item in general for steaming everything from broccoli to dumplings. Whatever your steaming arrangement, it needs to fit inside a larger, lidded pot that holds about an inch of water.
Steamed 790 xxx
the top has a smooth, spongey texture
Once the dhokla has been steamed, it's cut into small squares or diamonds and seasoned or "tempered" with a tarka, a mix of spices and aromatics briefly heated in oil. This smells amazing and seeps into the cracks, imparting another level of flavor to the mild bread.
Steamed bread 2 790 xxx
seeds and curry leaves add texture and spice
Dhokla, traditionally served with one or more chutneys, is a farshan: almost like an appetizer, or a dish that constitutes a break or pause in a larger meal. With a little dal or soup, or even on its own with some chutney, I think it makes a lovely lunch or light dinner.
Coriander chutney 790 xxx
coriander-mint chutney is a sprightly accompaniment

Dhokla (Steamed Bread)

from Mangoes & Curry Leaves
serves 4-6
  • — 1/2 cup toovar dal (split pigeon peas), washed & picked over
  • — 3/4 cup raw white rice, washed and drained
  • — 1/4 cup water
  • — 1/2 cup plain yogurt (full or reduced-fat)
  • — 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • — 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • — 2 teaspoons peanut or raw sesame oil
  • — 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • — 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
  • — 6 fresh or frozen curry leaves

Seven to 24 hours before you wish to serve the dhokla, start soaking the dal and rice. Wash them separately. Place the dal in a bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Place the rice in another bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Cover both bowls and set aside to soak for at least 6 hours, or overnight.

Drain the dal, measure out 1 cup, and place it in the food processor. Drain the rice, measure out 1 cup, and transfer to the food processor. Add the water and process until the dal and rice are well ground, a few minutes. Add the yogurt and process until smooth. The batter should be thick but pourable. Leave the batter in the processor bowl.

Organize your steaming arrangement (see details in post) and bring the water to a boil. Lightly grease an 8" round cake pan.

Add the salt and the baking powder to the batter and process briefly to mix well. Pour the batter into the cake pan to a depth of between 1/2" and 3/4" (the length of your thumbnail is a good measure).

Use oven mitts to protect your hands and arms as you set the pan in the steamer. Cover the pan and bring the water to a vigorous boil, the lower the heat just slightly to maintain a strong boil. After 5 minutes, remove the lid and wipe the underside dry, then replace it. Continue cooking until the top of the dhokla is shiny and the sides are pulling away slightly from the pan, about 15 minutes total. (The dhokla will rise and puff after about 5 minutes, but it needs more time to cook through.)

Use oven mitts again to remove the pan from the steamer. Set the pan aside for 10 minutes to set.

Use a sharp knife to slice the dhokla into 1"-diameter diamonds or squares; if the dhokla sticks to the knife as you slice, wipe the knife clean and lightly oil the blade before proceeding. Set the pan of sliced dhokla by your stovetop.

Heat the oil in a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, and when they start popping, add the sesame seeds. Once the seeds have popped, about 20 seconds, toss in the curry leaves, and then pour the oil and flavorings over the dhokla.

You can serve it right away or leave it in the pan for an hour before serving. This gives it more time to gain flavor from the oil and allows the texture to firm up even more.

Serve warm or at room temperature, using a spatula to lift the squares out of the pan, and accompanied by one or more fresh chutneys.

Download recipe  Download Recipe

Mint-Coriander Chutney

from Mangoes & Curry Leaves
makes about 2/3 cup
  • — 2 cups packed mint leaves
  • — 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • — 2 tablespoons coriander leaves
  • — 3 tablespoons sliced shallots
  • — 2 teaspoons minced green cayenne chile, or to taste
  • — 1 teaspoon sugar or agave
  • — 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Place all the ingredients in the food processor and process for about 15 seconds, until almost pureed. For the brightest flavor, serve immediately.

Download recipe  Download Recipe


How interesting! I recently discovered appams which, though cooked differently, seems to have a pretty similar batter. I'm looking forward to trying this recipe! Thanks for sharing it!
alwayshungry on October 20, 2011 at 11:06 am —
Yes, we had appams in Kerala! They're a bit more crepe-like, as I recall, and made with rice flour and yeast, right? Now I'm on the hunt for millet flour—bajra—to make grilled flatbreads.
laura on October 20, 2011 at 11:30 am —
Well apparently it's raw rice soaked and ground, not rice flour which for some reason is considerd cheating! ;p. The other main ingrediant is coconut milk. They are crepe like but... better! Crispy and lacy on the rims and soft and spongy in the center. Ouuu! Flatbread? I'll be waiting for that recipe! Maybe you should invest in a grain grinder? They're expensive but if you often use speciality flours it may be worth it.
alwayshungry on October 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm —
My recent purchase of a Vitamix included a separate container specifically for grinding grains, so I'm actually set up for that. Looks like I should start investigating ways to use it!
laura on October 21, 2011 at 4:03 am —
i saw this photo and immediately felt i had to read it- the dhokla you have made looks so utterly delicious- it reminds me of school, i had a lot of Gujarati friends in school in Nairobi- and their mums would pack this into their school lunchboxes for them- and we'd devour it with them during our break. also, i am going to forward this post to Naomi, who is a good friend of mine here in Toronto. x shayma
s on October 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm —
Wish I could share a piece with you, Shayma! xoxo
laura on October 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm —
I grew up eating dhoklas as an after-school snack, and just seeing your photographs made me hungry! Your version looks absolutely authentic. I'm going to head to the Indian Store (the ubiquitous Patel Borthers in DC) and try out the recipe! Thanks for posting!!
Amin on October 25, 2011 at 8:06 am —
It looks like the dhokla has turned out to be the Indian equivalent of Proust's madeleine! Who knew? Let me know how yours turns out, Amin.
laura on October 25, 2011 at 8:16 am —
Shayma (The Spice Spoon) sent this post along to me. How lovely to read your appreciative take on dokhla and on Mangoes and Curry Leaves! So glad you're getting the word out to people who may not know it, that dkhla is easy and delish too.
Naomi on October 26, 2011 at 10:28 am —
Thanks for stopping by, Naomi! I'll keep putting the word out about the wonders of South Asian cuisine.
laura on October 26, 2011 at 10:53 am —