Indian food has a good number of fans in the United States. It’s hard to hate the creamy tikka masala, saag, or mango lassi. But when I moved to the U.S. in 2014, I had never heard of any of these dishes. The Indian subcontinent is large and is often described as a continent masquerading as a country. Food is dictated by the region, its geography, and its people. The food in the north is usually based on wheat-based breads, uses cream and butter, and paneer (Indian cheese), whereas the food in the south is usually rice based, has coconut or cashew paste to bring a variety of flavors to the gravy, and uses tamarind to flavor the food. Growing up in the south, most of the food at home is short grained rice, lentils cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices, and vegetarian curries with tomato-based gravies.
Indian restaurants in the U.S. usually serve North Indian food, with very few restaurants having any South Indian varieties. Among the few that do, dosa is usually one of the few South Indian dishes that makes the cut. The humble dosa is a rice based crepe, usually eaten as breakfast, made steaming hot on a flat pan. You eat them and served with chutneys such as coconut, peanut, tomato, ginger, or chicken or fish curry, depending on where you are in the south. One of my favorite dosas is the Mysore masala dosa, named after the South Indian princely state of Mysore. It’s a dosa rubbed down with a red chutney made with chilli powder, onions, and garlic. This is often the most popular dosa at many breakfast places in India.
Far away from home, I went out to search for dosas in Champaign-Urbana and found three strong contenders.
Amravati Indian Royal Cuisine
The Indian restaurant at The Crossing has an extensive menu and a surprisingly diverse menu including favorites from the north and south, soups and even Indo-Chinese noodles and appetizers. With multiple dosa options, it was not hard to find what I was looking for on the menu. The dosa here was crisp on the outside, the potatoes firm, and the spice strong. It was served with sambar, a traditional lentil soup that had carrots, peas, potatoes, beans, and cauliflower. The chutneys it was paired with were a subtle, light and airy coconut chutney, a sweet and almost ketchup-like tomato chutney and the potatoes inside the dosa had cilantro, mustard seeds, and tomatoes. Overall, it was a solid dosa, comforting and crispy.
2501 Village Green Pl
11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. + 5 to 11 p.m., daily
I tried Signature Grill second, for lunch on a weekday and it was mind blowing. Signature Grill is unique because you can get the dosas traditional style or create a fusion dosa with the tikka sauce, any protein, and even add a fried egg to it. The Mysore Masala here was prepared in front of me on a large flat top, and I could watch them spread out the flavorful red paste on it before adding the potatoes and slicing the ginormous dosa in half. I almost cried some happy tears as I ate this dosa. The dosa was crisp, salty, and evenly thick all over. The potatoes were creamy, subtle, and comforting. The peanut chutney reminded me of the locally grown sweet and salty Rayalaseema peanuts of my hometown. The sambar was thin with a heavy lentil flavor. It was satisfying and comforting meal and reminded me of home.
If you want to try a dosa in a stress free environment, go to Signature Grill and get some old school or fusion dosas with your favorite filling, or try the potatoes like I did.
505 E Green St #3,
M-Su 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Mysore masala dosa at Himalayan Chimney was great in texture, flavor and looked very picturesque. It tore easily and paired deliciously with the potatoes that were stuffed in it. The sambar was heavy on the tamarind flavors and made me want to ask for a to go container of it. The coconut chutney was sweet, the tomato chutney was tangy with hints of ginger and the mint refreshing.
134 W Church St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 5 to 10 p.m.
Sun noon to 3 p.m. + 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Photos by Rashmi Tenneti