We all have our fears and phobias and are often dismayed at the lack of things accomplished on our “To do before I die” list. Sometimes these demons are as real as that tightly shut cupboard of junk you just can’t bring yourself to clean out. Maths was one of my academic demons growing up. I’ve learned to approach maths now with a calm insouciance as I reach for a calculator…or my husband. In the kitchen, I pride myself on trying to my hand at almost everything, fearing nothing. To Julie of Julie/Julia Project Blog (made into the movie movie Julie and Julia) it was probably aspics that was her kitchen demon. Mine were two staple South Indian foods, the bedrock of being a Tamilian and I just couldn’t get over my culinary shame at being able to make roast beef but not being able to set my own yoghurt/curd and make dosais (It’s dosai and not dosa to all you north Indians). These two tasks were Kryptonite to this self-proclaimed domestic goddess – they rendered me helpless, flailing and totally inept in the kitchen…that is until now.
Let me explain, in Tamil Nadu we eat curds/yoghurt mixed with rice at the end of every meal. I like to say it’s a Tamilian thing, rather than a Brahmin thing. Either way, this is my basic comfort food. I could live off curd rice and any vegetable, meat or pickle to go with it, even a drop of sambar. The pride of a household can rest solely with the quality of the curd and how long the “starter” has been going for. It’s like the duck poaching master stock at a Chinese restaurant, liquid gold, or in the case of curds, white gold. Curds is actually very easy to make – it’s just milk and a small amount of curds, the starter, and nature does the rest.
In India now one can buy curds in tubs all made and pre-set and that’s what I used to do, much to my own shame. Growing up, everyone ate curd at the end of the meal, even my mother, who from Bihar, never grew up as a child eating curd with rice. Now she eats curd-rice no matter what cuisine has gone before, lasagna, Chinese, pasta, the meal ends with curd-rice. But in my husband’s household, only his father would like to end the meal with curds. So, much to his dismay, only tiny inadequate amounts were made for him. Remembering his plight, my mother-in-law’s household now makes copious amounts of curds when they know that I’m coming to visit, not wanting me to suffer the yoghurt injustice. Perhaps because my husband does not like to or rather, need to have curds at the end of a meal, I slacked off on making it. When it’s just for me, I can do without – that’s the mother instinct in me, we are such martyrs to the common wants. In England I just used to buy the pre-made stuff.
My fear of setting curds is not completely baseless and is not for lack of trying. When we lived in the Nilgiris I tried on several occasions to set curds and the cold temperatures played havoc and I could never figure out the right temperature at which to heat my milk to. I even bought a stone bowl from a travelling salesman who assured me that any curds made in this stone jar would set. I guess he hadn’t encountered the likes of me to throw that sure statistic off. But it was my grandmother-in-law who kept telling me just how easy it was and one day I took the plunge. And I did it! I warmed about 350ml of milk in the microwave till it was just the hint of warm, added a quarter teaspoon of shop bought curds and mixed it about. The rest was up to nature. The warm air of Vizag assisted in the bacterial fermentation of the milk (which is what I meant by nature’s magic) and helped to set the curds to the consistency of thick, smooth, creamy yet light and well formed but with a slight wobble giving one utmost satisfaction when cutting in to. Always has to be chilled. But sometimes, chilled curds with warm rice and a pinch of salt is zingy, warm and cooling all at once.
OK, so people who have been setting curds for years and got it right the first time and think that I’m a total wuss for writing about setting curds, well, this was my genuine kitchen weakness and I’m damn proud of myself for conquering it. Even better is the validation of my husband, a non curd fan, who has given it top marks.
It wasn’t the batter that kept going wrong because I cheat and use Double Horse Instant Dosa mix – I swear by all their products.( Long Live the Double Horse Company) The delicate deftness with which you have to smoothen out the right consistency of batter, at the right temperature of the tava (flat pan without high edges), in a circular motion while ensuring that it spreads thinly and evenly to attain the perforated paper thin crispy edges completely baffled me.
My husband can do it, but for a long time this skill evaded me. I tried using the round bowl of a ladel, the base of a steel katori and nothing worked. And then I saw this video on YouTube where the lady uses the back of a tablespoon to evenly spread the batter. She also uses quite a bit of batter, while I had always been fearful of having too much on the tava and making the dosa too thick. But get this, it worked! See pictures above for proof.
I also figured out that it’s not just about finding a technique that works for you but that you do it with confidence. This goes for anything in life. It’ s the confidence that allows you to spread the batter slowly in a circular motion. Before, I was consumed with spreading the batter quickly for fear the heat would get to it and the batter would clump together. I use a non-stick pan so I had no fear of the batter sticking but slowness is key. When you rush things, they never work out so good. So thank you YouTube lady, the tablespoon method really does work. She does drone on about the onion for a far too many seconds though…
So that’s my kitchen demons conquered. I feel liberated;courageously using my saucepans and spatulas against any culinary monsters that should come my way. But I shan’t be tackling aspics any time soon…