'Bhatta spot the batter but it read idli dosa batter so Bhatta put the batter away knowing the two have the same matter but not the same batter'.
Like the desperate attempt to imitate this famous alliteration sequence, the debate this piece dwells on is a tongue twister — literally. If an Indian from the south can say “idli dosa batter” in the same breath, it is truly twisted. All others can be forgiven 'for they know not what they are saying’.
In line with this, food products company MTR hit the nail on the head when its print advertisement launching its latest range of packaged food products, the 'Minute Fresh' batter range, read “Idli and Dosa are not the same. Why is your batter the same?”
MTR has clearly positioned its 'Minute Fresh' batters against its rival iD Fresh Food’s major offering which had clubbed together the making of all forms of south Indian ‘pancakes’.
MTR’s statement speaks loud and clear what most real food connoisseurs would have muttered under their breath each time they saw the white and green packet that read ‘Idli Dosa Batter’. There is nothing against the brand as they made Malabar parottas accessible for the likes of this writer, who wouldn't ever attempt making it. But MTR’s packaging too, very clearly, ‘stands out’ in contrast to the baggy pouches as it is designed to spout out the batter, sparing users the trouble of emptying the pack into containers with a ladle.
While some argue that the differences are too minute for the target audience and that those who would be bothered would care to grind their own batter, this need not be true in entirety.
Instant food is the last resort of a generation that wants it but doesn't have either the inclination, the time and space or the know-how to do what it takes to make things happen. There is also an entire generation of people who have ‘done it all these years’ but would prefer something as close to what they made without going through the regular ordeal. This space, in the minds of idli and dosa eaters, is what MTR wants to occupy apart from creating room in the minds of those who didn't know the two can be different.
The latter class of eaters is the larger market that would surely be glad to be enlightened and have two exclusive products that give them a more ‘authentic’ end product. This is because idli and dosa aren't made of the same batter — precisely because it is not only the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ of their preparation that require their ingredients to be suitably altered.
Also, it isn't just the ‘decorative’ details, the special ingredient or the ‘nanima ke nuske’ that make the difference, it is the ‘logic’ of the two processes, it is the science of fermentation and the texture of the container the batter is stored in while it undergoes the fermentation process.
So let's get the basics right. Firstly, idli involves grinding the black gram separately, unlike for dosa where the gram and the other key ingredients are soaked and ground together.
Apart from the soaking, the finesse also is distinctly apart. Idli requires the final batter to be coarse which is when the idli turns out like what it should be and not a ‘steamed rice pancake’ or ‘sanna’ as it is called here in the coast, and which uses yeast from fermentation.
Idlis, the fluffy batter of which is made by grinding rice or soaked idli sooji, and mixed with the overly ground black gram (gugudavnu wattuche in Konkani) are steamed to get a spongy consistency. However, the dosa, the batter of which is finely ground, is spread out on a hot pan to get the crispy texture. Therefore, the finer the idli batter, the lesser are the chances of the idli being soft.
Batter for dosa is ideally made by blending a soaked mixture of rice, black gram along with a spoon of methi, and topped with either puffed or beaten rice. Sometimes, other dals are also included to make batter for the standard plain dosa. Adding some beaten rice adds to the crispness of the dosa with the chana dal bringing out the roast texture. This is simple, neat and crispy on the outside but smoother with a porous middle.
The idli batter dosa can’t be spread the way the dosa batter can be as it is a coarse mixture. However, both batters can be used to make thicker varieties of dosas.
Also, the use-one-for-the-other principle may still work with the steamers that have stands with shallow cave-in spaces, but would not work well with the small steel bowls that are placed in layers inside the traditional steamers.
Also, generally the idli batter dosa has a distinct name. For instance, in my variety of Konkani we call it, idli-pitta-doddak which is poured onto the pan after a fine sprinkling of mustard seeds on ghee-laced iron tawa, such that the mustard seeds line the circumference of the ‘doddak’.
The idli batter can be transformed into uttapas, which are also made with dosa batter that’s a day or two old, and with batter that would have begun to acquire a little extra sourness. An idli batter variant — which is usually made on upvas (fasting) days — is something where rice is replaced with sooji/rava. Which again at night is often used to quickly dish out some dosas to spare the task of pouring out the batter, waiting for it to be steamed for another good 20 minutes and sending a whole set of ‘steamcups’ to the sink, which isn't a task if more organic and leaf containers are used.
For those who wish to have just a southern Indian healthy breakfast item, and couldn’t care less about the nuances, for those who have to do with modified versions of the dhokla and for those who have it once in a full moon as just a break from the routine — none of this would have mattered until now.
But for anyone who knows a dosa is as different from an idli as the moon is from the sun, MTR’s cheeky brand statement is more of a ‘coming of age’ of the fast food industry of the south.
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