India: Full steam ahead

By David Tanis / New York Times News Service

If you are a lover of street food, India is the place to be. Outrageously delicious snacks, of which there are countless thousands, beckon from every corner.

One of them is dhokla, an irresistible Gujarati snack that is essentially a fluffy, steamed savory bread or cake. Aromatic squares of it are piled high, sprinkled with fluffy green coriander leaves and grated coconut. Immediately after my first bite of dhokla, I wanted more, and more still.

Fortunately, it is no more difficult to steam dhokla than to bake a cake.

First, make the batter (spiced with ginger, turmeric and green chili) and pour it into a cake pan. Pop the pan into a steamer, makeshift or not, and steam it for 20 minutes. It will look like a spongecake. Next, make the sizzling topping: Heat a little oil in a pan and toss in green chilies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves, along with a pinch of asafetida, the flavorful (some say smelly) powdered resin sold in Indian spice shops. They will quickly infuse the oil with flavor. Spoon this heady mixture over the dhokla.

You could employ the old-fashioned method, in which you soak dried grains or legumes overnight, grind them to make a batter, then let the batter sit in a warm place until enough airborne yeasts have caused it to ferment. This usually takes eight hours or so.

Alternatively, more modern cooks use ready-ground flour and a rising agent, such as baking powder. This takes about an hour from start to finish, but it doesn’t really feel like cheating, even if it is referred to as the “instant” method.

In India the preferred rising agent is Eno Brand Fruit Salt, sold in pharmacies ostensibly as an antacid, because of its high percentage of sodium bicarbonate. Every cook seems to know, however, that it really makes a dhokla rise brilliantly.

I had good results using a combination of baking powder and baking soda — though I contemplated using a couple of fizzy tablets from my local drugstore.

Dhokla’s best feature is its marvelous light and spongy texture.

It can be made with different types of dal, or with a mixture of dal and rice or dal and semolina. I love this version, which uses only semolina (sooji).

If you use straight chickpea flour (besan), you’ll have a garbanzo-flavored, gluten-free dhokla.

A word of warning: Be sure to have guests over for drinks when you make it. It’s the only way to keep from eating an entire platterful yourself.

Sooji Dhokla (Steamed Semolina Bread)

Makes one 8-inch dhokla, 6 to 8 servings (about 24 small squares). Time: 1 hour.

For the dhokla:

2 TBS vegetable oil, such as untoasted sesame or grapeseed oil, plus more for greasing pan

1-inch piece peeled ginger, finely chopped

1 or 2 sm green chilies, chopped

3⁄4 tsp kosher salt, plus a pinch

1 C fine semolina

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1⁄4 tsp turmeric

1⁄2 C plain whole-milk yogurt

1 handful fluffy cilantro sprigs, for garnish

1⁄4 C freshly grated coconut (or use frozen shredded coconut, defrosted), for garnish

Minty yogurt chutney, for serving (see recipe)

For the sizzled topping (tarka):

2 TBS vegetable oil

2 or 3 sm green chilies, slit lengthwise

1 tsp black mustard seeds

1⁄2 tsp cumin seeds

8 to 10 fresh curry leaves

Pinch of asafetida, aka hing (optional)

Set up a steamer large enough to hold an 8-inch cake pan on a rack, with sufficient room above and below. (If you don’t have a steamer, improvise with a soup pot.) Add water to just below rack. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a brisk simmer. Grease an 8-inch cake pan with a little oil and set aside.

Make the dhokla: Put the ginger and chilies in a mortar with a pinch of salt and pound them to a rough paste (or just chop them very finely). Put the ginger-chile paste in a mixing bowl. Add semolina, salt, baking soda, baking powder and turmeric and mix together with wooden spoon. Add yogurt and 1⁄2 cup water, stirring vigorously, to make a smooth, lump-free batter. Gradually thin with up to 1⁄4 cup more water, as necessary, until mixture resembles thick pancake batter.

Beat well, then pour batter into oiled cake pan. Put pan in steamer and cover pot with a clean dish towel, then place a lid on top. Steam for 20 minutes, until a skewer, inserted, emerges dry. Carefully remove pan from steamer. Let dhokla cool in pan for a few minutes, run a knife along sides of pan, then invert bread onto a serving plate. When completely cool, cut into squares or diamonds.

Make the tarka: Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add chilies and sizzle for a minute, then add mustard seeds and cook, stirring, until they begin to pop. Add cumin seeds and curry leaves and lightly toast in oil mixture, then stir in asafetida (if using) and turn off heat. Pour contents of pan over entire surface of dhokla, spreading seeds and oil with spoon.

To garnish, sprinkle with cilantro sprigs and freshly grated coconut. May be served warm or at room temperature. Serve with yogurt chutney for dipping.

Note: To make dhokla with chickpea flour, use 1 cup chickpea flour but only 1⁄2 cup water in the batter. (Chickpea flour, by the way, is gluten-free.)

Minty Yogurt Chutney

Makes about 1 cup. Time: 15 minutes

1 C roughly chopped mint leaves

1 C roughly chopped cilantro leaves

2 or 3 sm green chilies, chopped

4 scallions, chopped

1⁄2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

1⁄8 tsp cayenne

1⁄2 C plain whole-milk yogurt

Using a food processor or blender, grind mint, cilantro, chilies, scallions, salt, sugar and cayenne to a puree, adding a small amount of water if necessary.

Transfer mixture to a small bowl, stir in yogurt and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. It should be very spicy.