Need a little spice in your life? Try dhokla—a soft, spongy, savory treat from the west coast of India. You can cook this golden delicacy in about 40 minutes and serve it as an appetizer, a teatime snack, or a light but nourishing meal. Some of the ingredients are unusual, and it might take you a few tries to master the recipe, but trust me—it’s worth the effort. You’ve never tasted anything like dhokla before.
From an ayurvedic point of view, dhokla is a kapha-pacifying dish that can keep you warm and invigorated on a cold day. The mustard oil and hot pungent spices stoke agni (digestive fire), which tends to dampen with the change of weather. The besan flour and yogurt are excellent sources of protein, the latter serving as a complete protein—important in any vegetarian’s diet.
Like other baked goods made with yogurt, dhokla has a short shelf life. Serve it warm or at room temperature within a few hours of cooking, and store leftovers in the fridge for up to three days.
Yield: 8 servings
1 3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon besan (chickpea) flour
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
1. Set up a 5- to 6-quart pot for steaming that will accommodate a 9-inch pie pan, using a lid that allows a little steam to escape. Add 3 to 4 cups of water, using a trivet to elevate the pan above the waterline (about 1 1/4 inches). Turn the burner on high heat and prepare the batter as the water comes to a boil.
2. Sift the besan flour into a large bowl.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the turmeric, salt, yogurt, and hot water. Stir.
4. Add the flour and whisk until thick and well mixed.
5. Lightly oil the pie pan.
6. When the water in the steam pot is boiling, add the baking soda to the batter and whisk until the mixture is foamy and bubbly.
7. Pour the batter into the pie pan and carefully lower it into the steamer. Steam for about 20 minutes at medium heat. Test it with a toothpick—if it comes out clean, the dhokla is finished.
8. Remove the pan from the steamer. Place a serving plate upside down over the top of the dhokla; quickly invert the pan and lift it so the dhokla falls onto the plate. Cool for 10 minutes while making the tangy sauce.
1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
3 tablespoons 100% pure mustard oil
18 fresh curry leaves
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. In a small saucepan (with a tight-fitting lid nearby), heat the mustard oil on high until it smokes for about 1 minute and the color changes from golden to almost clear. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool for 30 to 60 seconds. (Otherwise, the hot oil will scorch the remaining ingredients, creating a bitter taste.)
2. Add the mustard seeds and quickly lid the pan while they begin to pop. (Tip: If the oil has cooled too much for the seeds to pop, remove the lid, turn the heat to medium, and wait until the seeds turn gray—they’ll still release their flavor.)
3. When the seeds have settled down or turned gray, add the curry leaves. There should be just enough heat left in the pot to darken their color.
4. Add the lemon juice, water, salt, and sugar. Bring up the heat and boil for 3 minutes, then set the pan aside.
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 red pepper, thinly sliced
1. Cut the dhokla into pie-style slices or small squares, and pull the pieces apart slightly, so that the dhokla has room to expand as it absorbs the sauce.
2. Pour the sauce in 1/4 cup measures over every inch of the bread. Don’t worry if there is extra liquid at the base of the plate; the dhokla will continue to soak it up.
3. Garnish with the red pepper and fresh cilantro leaves.
The traditional method of preparing dhokla involves a night of fermentation to make the batter bubbly and light. I speed up the process by using baking soda, as if it were a quick bread. But if you want the “slow food” experience, omit the baking soda and let your batter sit, covered, in a warm spot overnight.
Jon Janaka is a sanskrit scholar who worked in the Himalayan Institute kitchen for over five years.