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Culture Wars

Broken Moon #1, Mayme Kratz, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Dolby Chadwick Gallery. Via Artsy.

The Dosa Gentrification

Indian culture is under siege by Westerners enamored with yoga, authenticity, and convenience. The dosa—a beloved, inconvenient tradition—could be next to fall.

A gorgeous, svelte Indian woman with an educated-in-Britain accent walks down the staircase of her Scandinavian-designed home, lamenting the business of modern life. Glass of white wine in hand, she explains how it’s all made better by her new gadget: the Rotimatic, a robot with canister attachments of flour and water that, at the click of a button, spits out a hot, theatrically puffed roti.

The woman pronounces it “roadie-madic,” deviating from the British annunciated T’s to a more fashionable American softness that’s creeping into Indian accents today. She drizzles chocolate sauce over a roti stuffed with fruit. She puts roti-wrapped vegetable canapés on Chinese soup spoons. Indians eat rotis with their hands, pinching strong-smelling (“aromatic”) curries with the torn pieces. Residual turmeric gets under many a fingernail. There is nothing neat about it. The Rotimatic advertisers are selling their Indian consumers not just a roti-hiccupping robot, but a Western-approved lifestyle.

I never believed dosas could fall into the same trap, but I might be wrong.

Dosas are thin, round rice and lentil sheets fried on a skillet. In Chennai, dosa is the food of the everyman, or, to be more blunt, the darker-skinned. Some elite North Indians turn their noses up at it. Indian food in most Western countries is North Indian food, of which rotis are a staple. When I first discovered that white people knew and liked dosas, I was flattered. But why did I need the approval of white eaters? Their nod made me feel like people cared about that weird stalactite of South India that I am from. I was reinforcing the idea that a thing only matters when white people think it worthy of their time or thought. The Rotimatic reinforces this idea without regret.

Roti’s global recognizability has lent it to a sameness, a predictability. Dosas are still somewhat under the radar. Their global spread is still in the hands of Indians and people who know South India thoroughly enough to understand that a Tamil breakfast is not shy of options: upma, idiyappam, pongal, bonda, idli, vada, and their seasoned variations, though none quite as sassy as the dosa. It sizzles over fire and need to be served right after it is made. It’s finicky, too. N.S. Ramnath describes its variation in South India alone:

In Bangalore, they tend to be thick and dark, often with a dash of butter skiing down its hot surface. Sambhar is de rigueur in Chennai. In Bangalore, you have to ask for it … On the east, as you step into dry and rocky Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, you have to be prepared for a sharp bite in your tongue thanks to a generous smear of “gun powder” on the softer side of the dosa.

Sambhar is a tamarind-heavy mixed vegetable stew. Dosas, in Chennai at least, are also served with chutneys, usually coconut, tomato, and mint. Masala dosas (filled with spiced potatoes) are more filling, but I love the snappiness of a plain dosa.

The dosa was cold, with worry lines; the chutneys lacked a centrality of flavor. In fairness, it was 10:30 in the evening in Cobble Hill.

After work one evening, some colleagues and I ate at a restaurant called Dosa Royale. It was strange being in a trendy dosa place. All Chennai locals know the best dosas are in kadais (shops) that serve meals on or food packaged to go in banana leaves. There’s a feverish pace to dosa joints in Chennai, with the sounds of busboys yelling to one another across the room and high-traffic footsteps. Dosas cool so fast the only way to enjoy them is to scarf them down, lower arm moving mouth to plate mouth to plate with mechanic celerity. At sleepy Dosa Royale I paid $11 for an item that in India costs less than $1. “Vegan and gluten-free,” the menu nudged. The dosa was cold, with worry lines; the chutneys lacked a centrality of flavor. In fairness, it was 10:30 in the evening in Cobble Hill. Electricity in India is so unreliable that many shops don’t bother with refrigerators, so the ingredients are delivered fresh daily. Many Indians joke that what makes our dosas so good is the fry cook’s sweat.

I worry dosas will become their Western definitions—“lentil crepe” or “lentil pancake,” that sanitized screen. It’s hard for me to see dosas through the virtuous lens of “vegan and gluten-free” because I was raised thinking of them as an indulgence—slick with oil, spicy because of their condiments, labor-intensive if you lack the finesse it takes to know exactly when and how fast to flip it. Unlike rotis, dosas do not negotiate with cutlery; they are too crispy.

Seeing dosas outside of India or Tamil Nadu disorients me, veers me away from the East. I forget what they actually mean to me. I see them as vegan and gluten-free, not the meal that my maids made me because it was one of the few things that made me happy. I was a very sad child. “Born scared,” my father once described. I wonder if my maids knew I was depressed and helped in the only way they knew how: by serving me more dosas. Tamilian physiology often lends itself to paunchiness and I was no exception. Dosas were my only indulgence not shadowed by a guilt no seven-year-old should have. I use cutlery for most foods, including pizza and burritos, and especially for Indian food, which people in India always eat with their hands—but for dosas I get my hands dirty.

 

I moved to New Jersey when I was 10. At first, we’d return to Chennai as a family every summer; then every two or three summers, with one of us arriving later than the rest; now, it’s whenever any of us have the time. On these flights, I hear people speak Tamil and I can recognize only flickers of what they’re saying. From the airport, Subramani, our driver since I was five, picks me up and takes me to our apartment, where Sarala, the only maid we had growing up who did not leave to get married, insists on making me a dosa, no matter what jagged hour of the morning I arrive. She scoops the batter, drops it in the middle of the hot pan, and smooths it outward in a spiral with the back of the ladle, until it is expansive and crackling; “mora mora” is the Tamil term. Sometimes she cracks an egg on it. Dosa pans need to be flat and have very short elevated edges, about a quarter-inch high. Sarala slides the dosa onto my plate straight from the tilted pan when she’s done. If there is no leftover chutney or sambar or curry or even muluga podi (chile powder mixed with oil), I eat it with sugar.

Dosa batter is fermented overnight, so it has a sourdough-like pungency. In the house I grew up in, the batter was left to ferment in the room at the back of the kitchen, which had a large floor sink and a door that opened into an outdoor spiral staircase that led down to the maids’ bathroom. When the maids’ family members visited, they would sit cross-legged on the floor to talk and laugh, usually at our mispronunciations of Tamil words. It felt wrong that their bathroom had floor toilets and ours didn’t. I knew saying something about it would only make people laugh and respond, “That’s cute.” We would play games in which we’d pass around scraps of paper with the names of Bollywood or Kollywood (Tamil Nadu's Bollywood) stars scribbled on them. We’d have to deduce, based on the flow of the “chits,” who had which actors. Everything in that room, besides the grayish-white batter, was black—the granite sink, the large mortar and pestle, how the dark-complexioned maids would refer to themselves while touching their faces: “black, is so black.”

There’s a luxury to inconvenience. But that trendiness only applies to places where rich white people live—in places brown people live, inconvenience is backwards.

When I returned to India for the first time after moving, in 2001, our car had a cassette player. Then came a CD player, and now, the jack for the iPod is the only input used. When Tower Records went out of business in America, Indian music retailer Planet M occupied prime mall space, but India finally caught up and Planet M started making most of its money off video games (though they held on to cassettes as late as 2010). Milk used to be delivered to the doorstep in plastic baggies; we snipped the corner of the packet with scissors, poured the milk into a medium vat, boiled out the probable germs, and cooled it in the fridge using a plate as a lid. The cream surfaced, and however much effort was spent on extracting it, there would always be a wrinkly patch floating on my dad’s tea. Now we buy cartons of skim milk from the supermarket. The dosas have stayed the same, but I wonder if the next time I’m in India, I’ll see dosa batter for sale in quart containers to the right of the yogurt, where they are kept at the Indian grocery in Bergenfield, New Jersey.

There’s a luxury to inconvenience, like when Ina Garten, Barefoot in Paris-style, goes to the butcher for her beef, the fishmonger for her scallops, the farmers market for her radishes. But that trendiness only applies to places where rich white people live—in places brown people live, inconvenience is backwards. What the West deems uncool, India covets; hence the rise of supermalls with Benettons instead of independent shops selling hand-woven Kashmiri scarves.

 

I am afraid to go back to India. Subramani, who would pick me up from elementary school and hand me a tupperware of grape juice my mom packed, then hesitantly buy me the “Masala Magic”-flavored Lays potato chips I begged for because my mother forbade junk food, was found to have embezzled no small amount of money from the family company. My father was especially hurt, because he trusted Subramani enough to pay for both his sons’ college tuition. During his first few days in jail, Sarala kept fainting and couldn’t complete her work. Years of rumors that they were having an affair surfaced and she was let go, on no small suspicion that she was an accomplice. It’s not just the dosas I’ll miss about her.

India has changed so drastically every time I’ve returned. Hand-painted movie billboards were replaced by HD posters. Chennai has nearly quadrupled. Our beach house was an hour away from the city when I was growing up. Now it’s fairly central, in proximity to the Google and PayPal offices. The grocery stores, especially the ones near the beach, where all the expats live, stocks brie and gouda, not just Kraft. I can’t say I hate all these changes. But Chennai retains its essence: in its traffic, its hierarchies, and its food packaging. It’s easier for me to fear Chennai has become a soulless patina of what it was, because then I don’t have to face the fact I am losing my memories and the people I love.

 

My last banana-leaf-wrapped meal is hard to think about. In all likelihood, they are not going anywhere yet, but soon enough, more people will return from America or England with Kickstarter campaigns to revolutionize the food packaging industry to make it more sanitary and less old-fashioned. At Southern Spice, a South Indian restaurant at the prestigious Taj Coromandel hotel in Chennai, the banana leaves are cut into perfect circles and laid onto the silver plates. When will dosa packaging become a lush imitation of its old self? When will dosas?

The Rotimatic equates wealth with foreignness. Its ideal life is one devoid of Indian-ness. Yoga is one of India’s oldest customs, but Indian (or non-white) yoga instructors are virtually nonexistent outside the country. I don’t think the Rotimatic will catapult rotis to the status of yoga; still, the Rotimatic’s offer of traditional Indian fare for easy consumption and absorption by the West troubles me. It’s just an advertisement, but its flattened portrayal of Indian family life is too close to India’s inclinations to give up its own rich customs to follow the Western model.

I worry about dosas. To imagine a food that has played such a large part of my split lives flattened into a bland, Westernized, vegan, and gluten-free existence like that of the family in the Rotimatic ad is an insult to my history of being raised and nurtured by people who were paid to do so, whose ties to me could have been severed in a day—as some of them were. Moreover, having live-in maids is seen as awkward at best or a human rights violation at worst. My affinity for dosas is complicated, but dosas don't have to be. Dosas are much larger than me.

The Rotimatic and I project what we want onto innocuous flatbreads. The Rotimatic projects the future of the Indian family, and I project the past. I too have flattened India, in my expectation for the country to stay frozen in time when it is more complicated and in flux than ever, with India’s tech boom and widening income inequality yielding rapid changes every day. It is easy for me, from my comfortable armchair in the West, to want India to veer away from convenience. But India would rather be convenient for itself than antiquated and pretty for Western eyes—which is something I must learn to swallow.

Nikkitha Bakshani is an editor at The Morning News and a freelance writer. Her day job: Travel Editor at The Daily Meal. More by Nikkitha Bakshani