My grandmother’s neighbors in Paris were puzzled: Why did endless thumping emanate from her basement every morning? She struggled to explain.
It was the 1950s and her husband was a junior diplomat, one of the first posted abroad after Indian Independence. This meant entertaining streams of Indian visitors, official and otherwise. All of them were desperate for Indian food. Since my grandmother was from Kerala, that meant dosas, the savory South Indian fried crêpes that even the most parochial North Indian knew and liked. To make the batter, rice and small black lentils called urad dal had to be soaked for hours, then pounded repeatedly on a quern, a flat stone hand-mill, to form a thick, creamy paste. Luckily, the Indian government paid for a cook, a young man from Kerala. He had to do the pounding in the morning, since the batter took a day to ferment, even helped by the warmth of a basement boiler. Dosa batter lacks the elastic gluten necessary to trap large, quick-forming bubbles, so no yeast is added; dosas depend on natural fermentation and small, slow-forming bubbles for their lift.
Once it was ready, a spoonful of the batter was thinly spread in a circle on a steaming hot griddle and briefly fried until it was lacy and crisp and browned on one side. Then it was drizzled with ghee. A dollop of aloo masala, spiced mashed potato fragrant with fresh curry leaves, was placed in the center, and the dosa was folded in half to encase it.
Paired with a spicy, tamarind-soured sambar and an herbaceous fresh coconut chutney, masala dosas helped my grandmother make friends of many strangers during her time in France. When she returned home to Kerala, she replaced the quern with a motor-driven stone grinder set in a big stainless steel bowl, a device so essential to South Indian home cooks that politicians give them out to get votes. Until she died last year at 94, it ran almost every day in her kitchen, emitting a slurred whirr in place of those thumps in Paris from long ago.