For many in Kerala or outside of the state, dosa is so delicious a food item that they might perhaps like to devour it four times a day. Nothing wrong in desiring so. Just that if you are in Kochi and are keen to eat out, a restaurant north of the city would serve it only from a specific hour of a day.
This time-specificity is what makes Madras Cafe near Paravur, northwest of Aluva, a unique entity on the hospitality map of God’s Own Country. Pass by its precincts at KMK Junction in the early afternoon hour, and you can see a board announcing something curious: ‘Will open at 4 pm’.
All the more eager to try from there dosas, the famed rounded pancake of southern India? Well, all you need to do is to wait till the clock completes a quick rotation after 3:59 into the evening. The place leaps to life and you can enter to munch on as many dosas as you want in one go.
Historians say that dosa is a Dravidian dish with an antiquity of no less than 2,000 years. For, Sangam-era literature of the peninsula has references to dosa existing in the 1st century AD, they point out. One among the scholars goes on to pinpoint the place of origin of the thinner and crisper dosa to Udupi, which is now southern Karnataka. So much for serious research on the matter.
On a lighter vein, now, about dosa’s etymology. ‘Do’, some say, is derived from the Sanskrit word dwa, which means two. ‘Sh’, simply means, the sound that emanates when the fermented batter is spread across the hot griddle greased with oil and sometimes ghee. That is done using the bottom portion of the ladle that had till the other moment held a dollop of the mix of rice and black gram added with a dash of fenugreek seeds. If the first coat of the batter on the tava makes a shhsh sound, that is reproduced a second time after a while when the dosa on the hot stone is turned upside down. Thus, one dish that produces the shsh sound twice is do-shsha - or dosa.
Those finding the above paragraph a bit frivolous can better visit the seven-decade-old Madras Cafe and get a taste of its dosas. Forget the shsh sounds, you still can't ignore the sight of the dosa with two varieties of chutney besides sambar arriving from the kitchen to your dining table. Awesome sight, irresistible taste.
In case you didn’t know, there has for a while been fame associated with the dosas at this Madras Cafe run by a Pai family who are originally from the Konkan Coast north of Udupi. Their dosas are a big hit, definitely, with those in a few radii of miles around it. That's why, for instance, several inhabitants of Vypeen Island, travelling northward, won’t mind a detour to take a break at the Madras Cafe.
What’s more, the restaurant’s masala dosas are customised. They prepare it as per your specifications about the crispness and, yes, even the condiments in the masala. “Wah, this is actually the masala dosa capital,” you would feel (maybe even ignoring in bliss the Mysore-origin theory).
To be precise, the masala mix of boiled potatoes and onions has its temper as soft as butter. Your fingers would just sink into it. To know the exact taste of the masala, place it on your tongue without coating the item with chutney-sambar. The morsel will magically melt in your mouth, soon leaving the tongue with the tang of the chillies and coriander.
Even so, in the eagerness to eat masala dosa at the Madras Cafe enjoys, let’s not forget that the restaurant has another star dish: uthappam. It’s as colourful as the cute flower carpet laid down at the courtyard of one’s home during Onam time. With its bottom side fried slightly more than usual, the fun in devouring it lies also in the quickness with which you finish the task - least minding the steam emanating from it.
Rava dosa is a third item that forms the pride of Madras Cafe owners Jaychandra Pai, Rajagopala Pai, Deepesh and Rupeesh. The brothers, transparency personified, would take you inside the kitchen. There you see a huge vessel filled with slightly watery batter that is predominantly a mix of rava, rice and maida in equal measure. Plus a dash of powdered pepper, jeera and asafoetida along with nicely-sliced carrots, green chillies, ginger, coriander leaves and curry leaves.
A dollop of it is taken in a small tumbler that would, again, make the shsh noise when poured on to the hot tava - this time there is no need to spread it; the mix has on its own formed a round shape. It gives a special thrill to eat this suitably-fried dish with the red-coloured chutney - primarily made of onions, and hence called savaala chutney, the other ingredients being tomatoes, ginger and curry leaves.
Some try the rava dosa with a dash of pepper powder as a taste-enhancer. The dish has its subsidiary items called ullirava masala and ullirava dosa.
For all the fame the varieties of dosas enjoy at the Madras Cafe, the restaurant also sells other popular dishes like puttu and poori. The side-dish for the rice-steamed puttu differs with the day: chickpea, lentil, brown peas and green peas. For those wanting to eat it along with fried pappadam (and perhaps holding it in the left hand), the cafe provides that option too.
To reveal a public secret, Madras Cafe actually opens at 7.15 in the morning - but the forenoon session doesn’t sell dosas. At 12.45 pm, the shutters are down, with no meals served. Then, at sharp 4 in the evening, it’s open for a veritable daily dosa festival. Puttu and banana roast sell on the margins. Nothing goes excess usually, state the owners. Thus, the restaurant usually winds up for the day when the last dosa for the night is served.
You in Kochi? If you wish to visit this restaurant, go northward along the Edappally-Panvel national highway. You hit the KMK Junction that branches out to Cherai which has the famous beach. Down the Republic Road is a Sri Venkatachalapathy temple. Opposite to that is your destination- Madras Cafe.