Monday, December 23, 2019

Dosa Musings

I know a Gujurati restaurant that, typically, has dropped all regional pretenses and offers only the standard Punjabi greatest hits (nothing wears down a restaurateur faster than trying to present regional Indian food to gringos, who huffily demand their saag paneer, butter chicken, etc., preferably in buffet format). Also: zero spice.

Having accepted this fate, management has extended their pandering a few thousand extra kilometers by offering a (South Indian) dosa station for their weekend brunch. Thick, dark, spongey, masala dosas are cooked low-and-slow in a nonstick pan, absorbing much grease, and filled with unseasoned, non-oniony mashed potato. Gujuratis have as much business making dosas as a New Hampshire diner does offering jambalaya.

They deserve credit for at least trying to offer sambar, but it's hilariously wrong; so thick-textured that husks, seeds, and spice fragments bob atop like chunks of meat. I counted a mere 4 miserable black mustard seeds in my cup, clearly not skillet-popped as the first prep step. Hey, welcome to Gujurat.

But a miracle happened. I somehow persuaded the dosa attendant to slip in some green chilis (on-hand for staff meals?), and was astounded by how much better it was. Still nowhere near authentic, but certainly a delicious bite of food in the rough shape of a dosa.

Why was it so much better? Two answers, one knee-jerk and dull, the other subtle and interesting.

Dull Knee-Jerk Explanation: Everything's better spicy!

Subtle/Interesting Explanation: Deliciousness describes a condition where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Note: same for every field of artistic endeavor.
There's an unexplainable magic to this (which people are increasingly attuned to, and I see this as evidence that the Rationalist/Romantic pendulum is swinging back). And there's a nonlinearity to it - a math/science word for when results skew disproportionately (for example, consider anger: people remain calm in a wide range of settings, but, when anger arises, it can be stoked into greater intensity with ever-increasing ease).

In fact, deliciousness is extremely nonlinear. "Great" is a quadrillion times better than "Good", which is a hundred times better than "Fair", which is a smidge better than "Poor". You need some extra juju to get to deliciousness (which is why it's so rare).

If you do get there - to the magic result of a whole greater than the sum of its parts - then plucking away one part (e.g. neutering Indian cooking by subtracting chilis) implodes the magic, lowering quality disproportionally. That's why unspicy Indian food is so awful. And, by the same token, adding chilis back in can disproportionally raise quality. Remember, we're playing on a crazily-tilted (i.e. nonlinear) field.

So those chilis carry weight beyond the mere fact of their spiciness. By restoring je ne sais quoi, we reassemble the magic trick of deliciousness.


Unknown said...

Where I live, the little chili pepper symbols on a menu are a cruel joke. Doesn't matter what the cuisine.

James Leff said...

It’s like the “Door Open” button

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