James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Fermented Breakfast in India’s Only Dry State

A Fermented Breakfast in India’s Only Dry State

Dhokla in Gujarat

Mention fermentation in Gujarati—India’s only dry state—and you’re asking for trouble, except if it’s the morning. The proverbial fast is broken with a bite of bacteria, not a gulp, and there’s no risk of intoxication.

A dhokla is a small, square, savory cake made from fermented chickpea and rice flour and topped with a sprinkling of mustard seeds. It is one of several snacks called farsan that make up a typical Gujarati meal. Unlike many of its counterparts like bhajiya (fritters) and kachori (pastry with a spicy pea filling), dhokla is not deep-fried, so it immediately appeals to the more health-conscious.

The batter is steamed to give dhokla a soft, spongy texture and the end result is airy even though it packs a high-protein punch; an essential in the mostly vegetarian Gujarati diet. The absence of meat is made up for with myriad other tastes, typically in the same meal. Gujaratis enjoy combining sweet, salty, and bitter sensations, and dhokla provides a perfect blank canvas with which to experiment.

Because the dhokla itself is only mildly sour, a taste it takes on from the curd in the batter, it is considered versatile enough to be paired with several strongly flavored chutneys. Dip your dhokla into a red chutney made from chilli, tamarind, and garlic for an initial tang on the tongue that gives way to a pleasant sweetness or drizzle the passive-looking green chutney containing green chilli, mint, and coriander over it for some real burn.

Then there are the jazzed up dhoklas, made with spinach, corn, mushrooms or green peas, and in some cafes, dhoklas have been used as the base of a sandwich stuffed with paneer. Last September, someone even went as far as to turn dhokla into a dessert. Vikas Khanna, a Michelin-starred chef, presented dhokla molten cake with a berry compote to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, at a Fortune 500 dinner hosted in New York.

It’s unusual to see dhokla out after dark, but it is starting to become less confined to the morning hours and is also eaten as a day-time snack in India’s city streets. Even then, it is rarely on its own. Dhokla tends to be one component of a thali—an Indian tapas platter for one—which will include roti, rice, a vegetable stew or two, pickles, and a sweet. Maybe outside Gujarat, dhokla is also washed down with something fermented of the drinkable kind, but it’s best not to talk about that.

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