While dosa mania was hitting North India, one silent, tasty polo (not the game) made a quite entry in South-Indian restaurants, created a flutter but remained unexploited despite its pristine taste. Even now neer dosa is not very popular or known beyond Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Neer dosa is also known as paan polo or soyi polo in the Konkan region of India. I feel that Konkani cuisine has gone vastly unappreciated and neglected though it offers some of the best dishes in the South.
In Mumbai, amongst restaurants the best neer dosas are said to be served by Mahesh Lunch Home (the Fort branch) – according to P. I ate it once and it was the last time. I do not eat at Mahesh because I cannot stand the stench of fish and other sea food that permeates the air there. Agreed that the neer dosas were indeed soft, lacy, thin and had enough holes, but I could not enjoy them. I can vouch that these were prepared on non-stick pans. If you have had the ones prepared on cast iron skillets your impression regarding the best neer dosas will change forever.
My own experience of ‘neer dosa’ [‘neer’ meaning water, ‘dosa’ meaning pancake] began after entering a Mangalorean household. My sister-in-law used to make neer dosa for breakfast at least twice a week. When I had these for the first time, I kept asking for more unabashedly, until I ate five or six with a generous helping of coconut chutney. I tried my hand at it but after two failures, I gave up. I did not fret over it much because S would gladly prepare them for me.
It was only after setting up a house independently that I realized how much I missed the breakfast that had become a part of my weekly routine for nearly three years. Then, my children happened to taste it at their aunt’s place and it became a constant complaint, “Mummy, why do you not make neer dosa like Sharu Aunty does?” “They are so soft and tasty.” Sometimes it takes a hard nudge to spur me and my son managed to deliver that.
I purchased a non-stick pan with slightly raised rims specially for these dosas, and after five or six trials these became easy. Once you learn a dish you tend to overdo it, don’t you? I did too. A year back when P’s mom visited Mangalore and finding that I had mastered neer dosa making, presented me with a cast iron skillet. You know what that means? Believe me, when mom-in-law presents you a cast iron skillet it means you have received a trophy and that you must go on to do better! I received it, full of reverence, like a samurai receiving his code. Just take a deep breath, and you will be alright, but, never ever forget to season your pan. If not? Well, nothing much, but it is a sort of hara kiri.
Preparing cast iron pan for neer dosas/Seasoning the skillet:
Once you have had the dosas prepared on cast iron skillets you will never go back to the pristine white ones. The cast iron griddle however calls for some preparation. Wash the skillet with soapy water and dry well. Do not use the steel gauze for cleaning. If there is any rust see that is completely washed off. Try using warm soapy water. Once dry, pour sesame oil (or any edible grade oil of your choice) till it covers the surface or spread it generously so as to cover the surface of the pan, inside out. Leave the pan overnight or 4-5 hours undisturbed. Using a cloth clean the pan so that excess oil is absorbed. Now the pan is ready for preparation of neer dosa. You can see the type of pan used in the picture.
If your pan is a rusted one than season by pouring ‘kanji’ [water from cooked rice] in it for a night, and then boiling it the next day. Repeat twice or thrice and the pan is ready to use. The first time oil is needed to cook but with time it can be used even without oil.
If you skip the seasoning ritual you will find that the batter will stick all over the pan and the wasted muscle power in trying to remove the batter, added to stress will give you a horrendous time! It is my advice not to skip the step!
Recipe: Neer Dosa ~ Paan polo ~ Soyi polo
Makes: About 30-40 pancakes, depending on thickness
Raw white rice – 3 cups
Water – 3 to 3.5 cups
Salt to taste
Grated coconut – 1 cup
Method to prepare batter:
Soak rice overnight or at least 3-4 hours.
Drain completely. Grind with fresh water, adding one cup at a time in a mixer or grinder, along with coconut till fine. Add more water while grinding, only if needed.
Once the batter is made, pour into a bow. Add more water to clean out the mixer and add to the bowl. Mix well. The consistency should be just a little thicker than water. It is best compared to buttermilk or freshly squeezed coconut milk. I did not measure the exact amount of water added but I think it was definitely not more than 4 cups. Adjust salt.
Heat skillet till uniformly hot, not smoking hot. Hold one ear with a pair of tongs. With the other hand pour a ladleful of watery batter over the skillet and swirl the skillet immediately so that batter spreads all over the skillet. If any large areas are left uncovered, pour very little batter and tilt so that it spreads.
Cover the pan with a lid. Let cook for about half a minute. Insert a pancake turner around the edges and carefully fold the pancake in half and again in half to form a triangle. Remove and store on a plate that has holes such as a flat sieve or a cane plate etc. This helps the steam escape from the bottom. If not your pancake will stick to the plate as it the heat reduces.
Do not place the prepared pancakes on top of another pancake. They should be laid separately as they tend to stick.
Always cook only one side of the pancake. Do not turn and cook the other side.
In a non-stick pan, pancakes will come out pristine white but not in a cast iron skillet. The pancake will take on a light brown hue. Do not go by the colour.
Pancakes made on cast iron pan have even holes because it distributes and retains heat better than any other pan. The taste is definitely so much better than on a non-stick pan.
Coconut in batter can be omitted but the pancakes will dry out very soon in that case.
You can add coconut milk towards the end instead of grinding grated coconut.
I make a sweet variation that I once posted in Beyond Curries. Check out the recipe here.
If you have just started keep the batter a little thick, to the consistency of milk. As you get comfortable you can increase the fluidity.
Do not keep the pancakes over a plate, always keep on a sieve to let the steam escape.
To prevent sticking, do not pile pancakes on top of one another.
Once again do not forget to season your pan.
Recently I saw Soma’s post on patishapta, a pancake from Bengal. When I read Soma’s post, I discussed it with my friend, Sandeepa. Sandeepa is a Bong too. I asked her about the etymology of ‘patishapta’ because it such a beautiful sounding word. Sandeepa tells me that her mother always made patishapta with only freshly ground rice, without adding coconut in it. They would make the batter into thin crepes on a cast iron pan and serve it rolled in a mixture of jaggery and coconut. Just like Soma said. Only, Soma made these with all purpose flour (maida). How does a delicacy travel from one region to another, get served in similar fashion and yet the places in between have no hint of the delicacy? Do you know that neer dosa is also served with a mixture of fresh coconut shavings with jaggery? Only, it is served on the side. We also have chutney to go with it. Molagapodi does not taste very nice with this dish.
The typical chutney served with neer dosa:
1/2 a coconut, grated
Salt to taste
2 green chillies
Add a little water and grind till fine. Adjust water to bring it to chutney consistency. Adjust salt. Do not season or add oil.
Storage: Best eaten immediately. If carrying for lunch, pack in an air tight box, or wrap in coconut palm. Do not store beyond 4 or 5 hours. It might dry out and break.
Updated in 2016:
I use only cast iron pans on general basis. While making neer dosa I find its easier to make it by swirling the batter in the pan which is possible only if the pan itself is light so I sometimes use coated pans. These days I use ceramic coated pans, if I am not using cast iron. But neer dosa tastes best when made in cast iron. It turns out thicker but tastier.
I re-read this post and found that the way I season pans has changed, having used a lot of cast iron vessels over the years and that I have not updated the post. I hope to make a new post on that soon.