I was raised in a small village where there were no restaurants, snack bars,chai shops or carts filled with tantalizing street food. When our family went to the nearby town, we, the kids, would be gawking at the variety of tempting street food. Being very health- conscious, my father would not let us buy anything because these snacks were deep-fried and were not stored in hygienic conditions. Occasionally, he would allow us to buy dhoklas—a spongy diamond shaped savory—that were kept in a closed glass case. They were a great treat at the time, but looking back, the home-made dhoklasprepared by my mother were superior.
My mother prepared the white dhoklas, also known as khatta (sour) dhoklas. The yellow dhoklas sold in snack shops are khaman dhoklas. The main difference between the two is that the white dhoklas are made from rice (or rice grits) and skinned urad beans, whereas the khaman dhoklas are made with rice (or rice grits), besan (garbanzo bean flour) and grated vegetables such as a summer squash or white radish. White dhoklas are quicker to make especially if you use rice grits (cream of rice) instead of rice as shown in this recipe.
White dhoklas are generally not stir-fried after steaming, but a “vaghar” can be added (more on this later). Ready-made dhokla mix is available in Indian grocery stores. However, if you plan by soaking the dal overnight, dhokla is very easy to prepare from scratch.
White dhokla is made in the following steps:
First, the rice and urad dal are soaked overnight. (If you choose to use precooked rice grits or cream of rice instead of whole rice, you can skip this step.) The next day, both grains are ground and then fermented with sour yogurt or lemon juice. Then, the batter is flavored with spices and steamed. The steamed dhoklas are cut into small pieces and served with a freshly made sweet chutney.
In Gujarat, dhokla batter was easily fermented with sour yogurt. But in my San Francisco kitchen, it is never warm enough for the batter to rise. So I add lemon juice to make my yogurt more sour and use additional lemon juice with baking soda to the batter right before steaming. Eno Fruit Salt (which is a combination of soda-bicarbonate and citric acid) sold in Indian specialty stores is used to make dhokla spongy and light. But the combination of baking powder and lemon juice works well to obtain similar results.
To steam the dhokla, you will need to set up an apparatus as shown in the illustration. A wok or a large sauce pot with a tightly fitting lid is perfect for this purpose. I have come across recipes that cook dhokla in an oven (or even in a micro-wave oven). In my experience, the baked dhoklas turned out dried, dense and flat. The steamed dhoklas are always moist and light.
¼ cup urad dal (without skin) soaked in a cup of water overnight or for at least 6 hours
½ cup water to grind the dal with
½ cup sour yogurt whisked with ¾ cup water and juice of half lemon (about a tablespoon)
¾ cup cream of rice (or rice grits)
¾ teaspoon or to taste salt
1 hot green pepper such as jalapeno with seeds and inner veins removed
½ inch piece of grated fresh ginger root
3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
½ -¾ teaspoon baking powder
Juice of 1 or 1½ lemons (about 2 tablespoons) diluted with 2 tablespoons of water
Additional water as needed to make the batter that is pourable
Few pinches of cayenne powder
First, rinse and soak the dal overnight or for at least six hours in a cup of water. Keep it covered and do not refrigerate. Next, drain the dal completely. Place dal in a jar of an electrical blender with ½ cup of water to make a puree that has a pourable consistency.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice and ¾ cup of water. Add the cream of rice (rice grits) and mix well using a fork. Next, add the pureed urad dal and salt.
Mix the batter well, breaking lumps. Cover and allow this mixture to ferment for about 6 to 8 hours in a warm place in your kitchen.
Meanwhile, prepare a coarse green paste of fresh hot pepper, ginger and cilantro using a mortar and pestle or a blender. This mixture does not have to be very fine, so you can simply use a rolling pin to crush the fresh herbs together. Set the green paste aside.
Next, prepare the last ingredients going into the batter.
In a small bowl, combine baking soda, lemon juice and water and whisk them together. Wait for the fizzle. Add this mixture immediately to the batter and mix well.
Divide the batter into two parts and pour the batter into the pie plates. Add several dabs (about ½ teaspoon each) of the green paste on top of the batter. This will decorate and spice up the dhoklas. In addition, sprinkle just a few small pinches of cayenne pepper on top.
Arrange a steaming apparatus as follows: Fill a wok or a wide Dutch oven with two cups of water and place a vegetable steamer in it. Set one pie plate that is filled with batter carefully on the vegetable steamer and cover the wok or the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Heat over a medium flame and steam for 30 minutes until the batter is settled and when tested with a fork, it comes out clean. Remove the pie plate and allow the dhokla to cool. Add a cup of water into the bottom of the wok and position the next pie plate. Cover and steam thedhokla for about 20 minutes (the second batch takes less time to steam).
When the khatta dhokla pies are cool, in about half an hour, the discs can be cut into small pieces. They are usually cut while in the pie plates, first into strips and then into small diamonds or triangles. The pieces can be removed from of the plates using a metal spatula.
Khatta dhoklas are now ready to be served with a mint chutney. (Recipe for mint chutney to follow.)
For the optional third step, if you wish to put “vaghar” on the dhoklas, place two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds, and when the seeds start to pop, pour this over the khatta dhokhla. Serve these dhoklas hot or at room temperature with a chutney (recipe below) or plain yogurt.
Yet another variation is a dhokla sandwich with mint chutney ‘filling.” Skip the green paste in the batter, slice the khatta dhoklas horizontally and add the mint chutney between the “slices” of khatta dhoklas. Ta da!
1 cup fresh mint leaves, stems removed
½ cup chopped scallions, including mostof their greens
1 tablespoon freshly grated gingerroot
1 or 2 hot chilies, seeds and veins removed, and chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt, soy yogurt or soft tofu
3 tablespoons water
Place all of the ingredients in the jar of a food processor or a blender and blend thoroughly. Chill until ready to serve. Any unused portion can be stored in a tightly closed jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Mint chutney is an especially good dipping sauce for any appetizer, as mint is a good digestive aid.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors Of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is a co-owner of Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco. Serena Sacharoff is a chef, an illustrator and an art student.