Golden wonders

Indian pancakes to add spice to Shrove Tuesday; I was awe-struck when my `paper dosa' arrived, standing upright like a peacock's fan - the sort of napkin-folding skills you expect to find in a THF hotel
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I remember Drummond Street from when I was at university - a bastion of Edwardian houses in the shadow of Euston station. Now it is as an enclave of cheap Indian vegetarian cafes and delis.

One such cafe is the long-standing Diwana Bhel Poori House that has proved a blueprint for any number of such places - a mishmash of the bhel poori of Bombay, the "famous dosas of the coral coast" and the thalis of Gujarat: a selection of different little dishes eaten with Indian breads.

Bhel poori are decidedly eccentric. A cold snack that originated on Chowpaty Beach, they remind me of savoury Shredded Wheat. In part, I put this down to the cereal bowl and the teaspoon with which you eat the hotchpotch of crispy noodles, onions, chutney, potatoes, coriander and biscuit.

Part of the Diwana's success is its "eat as much as you want" lunchtime buffet, but the attraction for me is their exquisitely made and delicate dosas - the pancakes of Southern India - expansive crisp, golden sheets that are quite unlike the pudgy round affairs normal to Pancake Day.

My favourite is white and lacy, with large holes set between threads of batter, golden and shiny on the side on which it is grilled, set with coriander leaves, green chilli and ginger. Cooked in a long strip it is folded over like a linen hand towel once cooked. You tear it into pieces as you eat it and pile it with a creamy coconut chutney, a spicy lentil sambhar, and potato fried with cumin and turmeric.

There's another dosa made with rice flour and water that's fermented for a day or two until it turns sour. This one is paper-thin, deep gold and very crisp with the flavour of burnt Parmesan. I was awe-struck when my "paper dosa" arrived, standing upright like a peacock's fan - the sort of napkin-folding skills you expect to find in a THF hotel.

All the dosas are cooked on an oblong flat iron grill, attended by a chef who splashes water on it at regular intervals - a shower of droplets that dance on the surface before evaporating in a cloud of steam which gives the impression of great heat.

On experimenting at home, though, I would say that one of the Diwana's secrets is that the grill is not very hot at all. The pancakes are cooked on one side only for about six minutes, and to achieve this at home, I have to keep my pans on a fairly low heat.

Of the accompaniments to dosas, the best I have tasted were in Darjeeling. But I'd be lying if I said the memory wasn't in some way coloured by eating on a terrace with mountains falling away in front of us.

We had returned from a virtuous early-morning walk to be greeted by a delectable savoury breakfast of puffy breads, turmeric-spiced potatoes, a mealy dal and a slippery tomato and onion chutney, all cooked by Sabot Gomden, our hostess. Even without the backdrop they still taste good.

Note on recipes: a few of these ingredients may require going to an Indian deli. For mail order you could contact Curry Direct (01730 894949). All the side dishes are intended as small accompaniments to the pancakes - if you want to serve them as part of another meal, then doubling up would be a good idea.

Lacy Dosas, makes 10 x 18-20cm/7-8"

Because these need to be crisp, they cannot be cooked and stacked in advance. But with two frying pans on the go, you can cook two at a time, and keep them coming. They take 4-6 minutes and don't require any flipping, so it's actually quite easy.

150g/5oz coarse semolina

12 tsp sea salt

400ml/15fl oz water

1 tbsp chopped coriander

13 tsp finely chopped green chilli

12 tsp finely chopped ginger

vegetable oil

Blend the semolina, salt and water together into a watery paste, then add the remaining ingredients. The batter will be very thin, but it is the water that creates the lacy effect. Heat two cast-iron frying pans over a low heat and brush them with vegetable oil. Stir the batter well and drizzle a coating of the mixture over the base of the pan - it should separate, leaving holes in the pancake which become more pronounced as it dries out. The mixture should not be ladled in too thickly or it won't crimp up and the holes won't appear. And the semolina sinks very quickly: it must be evenly suspended in the water to work, so keep stirring it as you ladle it in.

After about 4 minutes, lift the edges of the pancake to see how the underside is doing; it should be quite golden in patches, and shiny. If it is too pale, then the pancake won't hold together when it is removed. Once it is dry and crisp, remove it to a plate, shiny golden side uppermost, and eat straight away. Cook the remainder in the same fashion, re-oiling the pan as necessary.

Turmeric potatoes, serves 4

This is best made with new or salad potatoes.

Masala: 14 tsp each of onion seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and poppy seeds

112 tbsp mustard oil

1 onion, peeled and grated

1 tomato, skinned and finely chopped

12 tsp turmeric, 18 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp salt

7fl oz water

2lb new potatoes, peeled, boiled and diced

1 heaped tbsp chopped coriander

Grind the masala seeds using a pestle and mortar - they don't have to completely reduce to a powder. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the masala. When it splutters, add the onion and cook over a low heat until it is translucent, then add the tomato, turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt and water and simmer for 10 minutes. You can cook up to this point in advance.

Add the potatoes and cook for a few minutes to heat through, stirring occasionally. Stir in the coriander and adjust seasoning. Serve straight away.

Tomato and onion chutney, serves 4

This is a lovely slippery chutney. It would also be good with cold ham or chicken.

1 tbsp mustard oil

4 large onions, peeled, halved and finely sliced

1 tsp salt

2 tomatoes, skinned and cut into strips

1" ginger, skin removed and finely chopped

1 tsp ground coriander

12 tsp turmeric

14 tsp finely chopped green chilli

Heat the mustard oil in a good-size saucepan, add the onion and salt and cook over a low heat until translucent and soft, about 10 minutes: stir to make sure it does not catch. Add the tomato, ginger, coriander, turmeric and the green chilli. Cover and cook over a very low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until it is condensed and silky. Serve at room temperature.

Dal, serves 4

This is quite a delicate dal, which I like. I think adding the spices at the end is a good idea.

175g/6oz chana dal or yellow split peas

700 ml/114 pt water plus 200 ml/7 fl oz boiling water

1 tbs mustard oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

12 tsp turmeric,1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp sea salt

Place the drained dal in a saucepan with the 700ml/ 11/4 pints of water, bring to the boil and skim the surface foam, then simmer for 40 minutes until you have a thick puree.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and cook a third of the onion until it is brown. Add the cooked pulse, the spices, salt, remaining onion and the boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes. It is difficult to say exactly how much water you will require; the result should be thicker than a soup, thinner than porridge. You will need to stir the dal as it is simmering, and it helps to keep it three-quarters covered with a lid to stop it splattering the walls and you.