I like fluffy, chewy steamed breads very much, though I don't usually think of making them at home. Do you know the kind of thing I'm talking about? Bright white mantou, for example -- those Chinese steamed buns with no filling. They're great, but something I buy at Chinatown bakeries rather than something I make myself.
These kinds of steamed breads, the dense, sweet kind filled with dates and walnuts and that kind of thing, well, I don't honestly think of them as breads. I like a nice plum pudding, but not this time of year!
The light, savory Indian steamed bread called dhokla, though, is so appealing that now I've realized that I can make it in the comfort of my own home, it's threatening to become a new staple recipe. I first had dhokla at the amazing Vik's in Berkeley. It's golden and springy, dressed with fried mustard seeds and fresh cilantro, and I love it. It's supposed to be more of a snack food, really, than something you're supposed to have with dinner, but so far dinner has been when we've had it, and leftovers the next morning with our coffee.
Since we're just a couple of dorky white heathens, anyhow, it works for us. The more traditional way of making dhokla includes a step in which you ferment it overnight, like a sourdough -- first making a batter of gram (chickpea) flour and/or rice flour and spices, or even soaking chana dal (that is, split hulled chickpeas) overnight, then grinding them together with the spices, and then letting that ferment for some hours. Only then do you add the baking soda.
I daresay that is even more delicious, but honestly this quick version tastes very nice too. It's also easy to make, despite the length of my instructions below. I adapted this recipe very slightly from the version at Saffron Trail, and added some tips based on what have struck me as potential pitfalls along the way. It makes enough for S. and me to have plenty for dinner and breakfast the next day; it should serve four as a lunch or hearty snack.
BEFORE YOU START
You will need the following special(ish) equipment:
A steamer setup: this can work a couple of ways. I have a pasta pot that came with a steamer that fits inside; you might have one of those bamboo steamers. These are easiest, because you don't have to worry about lowering your batter-filled pan directly into the steam -- you can set it in the steamer to fill it and then fit the insert into the pot and cover. But if you don't have a steamer insert, you can just use a big stockpot and put a large bowl upside down inside as a stand to rest your cake pan on and keep it above the level of the water. Whatever you use, your pan should have a tight-fitting lid. It's also a good idea to wrap this lid in a tea towel, so that the towel can absorb the steam instead of letting it drip onto the dhokla inside.
A long-handled metal ladle (this is what I use) or small metal pan for heating your tadka (oil and spices).
A cake pan that fits inside your steamer setup.
1 c. gram/chickpea/garbanzo bean flour
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. citric acid crystals (I actually have this in my cupboard, but probably you don't -- you should be able to substitute the juice of one lemon)
1 tsp. salt
1 c. water
1 tsp. baking soda
Oil for greasing the pan
For tadka: 1 tsp mustard seeds, a few curry leaves, if you have them, and 1 tsp oil
For garnish: Cilantro, chopped fine
1. Mix the flour, turmeric, salt, sugar and citric acid crystals (if using) in a bowl, breaking up any lumps. I like to use a whisk to do this. Whisk in the water (and lemon juice, if that's what you're using) and mix thoroughly to make a nice smooth batter. Set this aside for at least ten minutes.
2. Meanwhile, set up your steamer with a couple of inches of water in your pot, and put over high heat, covered. Grease your cake pan thoroughly.
3. Now that the batter has rested for ten minutes, sprinkle the baking soda over the top and mix it into the batter by pulling at it (as the original recipe says!) with your fingers. Here there are a couple of things that might go wrong or startle you. First of all, be prepared for the fact that the batter is going to get really quite foamy and fluffy and light. Second, while of course you shouldn't take forever over this step and lose all the rising action of the soda, you should take the time to make sure that you have the soda mixed all through the batter, or you will wind up with dense, leaden bits at the bottom of your cooked dhokla.
4. Pour the well-blended, foamy batter into your prepared cake pan and place in steamer. Cover with your towel-wrapped lid and steam for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
5. Remove the pan from the steamer and let the dhokla cool in the pan for five minutes.
6. Cut the dhokla into diamond-shaped pieces and place on serving dish.
7. Now do the tadka: heat your one teaspoon of oil over medium heat. (When I use a ladle, what I do is turn the flame to high but hold the ladle a few inches away from the heat, swirling the oil as it heats.) After a moment, add the mustard seeds and torn curry leaves, if using. When the first few seeds start to crack audibly, pour the lot over the dhokla. Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves.