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Origin of Masala Dosa: Know How From a Sin Accompanied by a Bad Habit to Delicious South Indian Food



Dosa is one of the staple foods of South India. It is basically like a crêpe whose batter is made from fermented grains of rice and ground urad dal (lentils) with curd.


Many believe that the dosa originated in a city called Udupi in Karnataka. It was invented in the process of a Brahmin Adiga (cook) trying to get on the wild side – since Brahmins weren’t allowed access to alcohol, he tried to ferment his own with rice. It did not work, and so he just poured it out on a pan to make a crêpe out of it. Dosha in Kannada means “sin” hence the name given to his attempt at sinning by drinking alcohol was Dosha, later turned to dosa.


The reason why it is eaten with chutney today is because the word Chata in Kannada refers to a bad habit. Essentially, dosa mattu chatni (dosa with chutney) was the main dish that people ate; Dosha mattu chata, a sin accompanied by a bad habit.


Folded when served, a dosa is meant to have a crispy, golden exterior, and should be soft and spongy on the inside. Plain dosas are just dosa only eaten with sambar and/or chutney. Masala dosas are dosas that have a yellow-coloured masala stuffed inside, made of potatoes, onions, mustard oil, etc.


Masala dosa is generally eaten with servings of sambhar (South Indian lentil), coconut chutney, tomato chutney and pudina (mint) chutney. Some people also eat the same with idli podi – a powder made of peanuts and mixed with gingelly oil to make a chutney-like paste.


The masala dosa has various types, depending on which city or state it comes from. The Mysore Masala Dosa comes with coconut or mint chutney laid inside of the dosa along with the masala; Benne Masala Dosa comes from Devanagere in Karnataka and is served with luscious amounts of butter and a potato filling called Palya.


There’s also the vegetable masala dosa which comes with an arrangement of peas, cauliflower, carrots, beans and cabbage for the masala bhaji. Another popular type of masala dosa is the Rava (semolina) masala dosa.


There are a few origin stories of the Masala Dosa and how it came into being. Before the stuffing of the masala into dosa ever began to happen, people only ate plain dosas, which were generally served with potato curry. The story goes to say that dosas were available as breakfast foods in all the South Indian hotels (messes and canteens in South India are most often referred to as hotels) and the Brahmins of Hindu society were the ones in charge of cooking.


Now Brahmins were against the use of onions for their strange customs and beliefs, however, if they ever fell short of potatoes while cooking, they would simply chop up onions and use them in the potato curry. Of course, if there are onions in food, they can clearly be seen by simply looking at the food. To avoid getting into trouble because of this, the cooks would simply take a helping of the potato curry and lift the dosa as if it’s got a flap, insert the masala, that is, the potato curry with onions, and put the flap back down. In this way, the cooks had created a new kind of dosa – the Masala Dosa.


There is also another story related to the origin of dosa, which is associated with the King of Mysore. The Maharaja of Mysore had one day thrown an elaborate and extravagant party. However, as it turns out, a lot of food had been left behind and wasted. The king was a good man and he did not want any of this food to go to waste. And so, the king urged his team of cooks and the other staff members of the kitchen to think creatively, so as to come up with a solution to the problem of food wastage at hand. The kitchen staff of the Maharaja responded to this by doing the same thing that the Brahmin cooks did at the hotel – stuffed the plain dosas with potatoes to create the magnificent masala dosa.


While it is one of the most popular foods of south India, the dosa gained popularity in north India too around the time of independence. This is owed to the Madras Hotel, situated in Connaught Place, Delhi, which was one of the first restaurants or hotels to ever serve the south Indian cuisine anywhere other than south India. The Madras Hotel is today called the Madras Coffee House, but the ironic thing about it is that it was opened in the 1930s by a migrant Punjabi who moved to Delhi. The hotel went through many changes, including turning into a Chinese restaurant where British soldiers could drink and entertain women. However, the focus of the shoddy hotel began to shift back to south Indian after India gained independence in 1947. It arrived in Mumbai with the Udupi restaurants in the 1930s by K. Krishna Rao who is also regarded as the originator of the masala dosa in its modern form, ran Old Woodlands in Chennai during the early 1940s.


Following this, dosa and other south Indian food – Idly, Idiyappam, Uttappam, Appam, etc, was also introduced to Bombay when Udupi Upahars or Udupi restaurants began to open up there. Apart from this, countries where there is a high concentration of South Indians, such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, etc also eat dosas and other south Indian food quite often. This owes to the fact that when the south Indians moved to these countries, they took their food habits along with them.


The Masala dosa is an entire meal on its own, with a full helping of the masala and the various chutneys eaten with it. It is healthy, due to the process of fermentation and also very delicious. It is one of the great things that have come from South India.


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