In snack shops in Bombay, a very prominent sight is a huge tray on the counter piled high with squares of a delicate and spongy yellow savoury cake called dhokla. They disappear just as fast as a tray of gooey fudge-y brownies would in the US. Dhoklas come from the Gujarati tradition, and are one of the icons of that snack-loving cuisine.
A fermented batter made of seasoned chickpea flour is steamed into a spongy cake, then drizzled over with a spicy tempering mixture, "the icing on the cake". Gujarati food is famous for a touch of sweetness in every savory dish, and dhokla is no different. The mild sweetness in dhokla comes from either the addition of some sugar to the batter or by sprinkling the steamed cake with some sugar-water. Dhokla can be eaten by itself, or dipped into a sweet or spicy chutney. Some of the tastiest versions I have tasted are the sandwich dhoklas, layers of dhoklas sandwiched with green (chili-cilantro) chutney, in the manner of "layer cakes".
Short of actually fermenting the batter, instant dhokla can be made (just like a quick bread) with chemical leavening agents. One that is frequently seen in dhokla recipes is a brand called Eno's fruit salt, a combination of citric acid and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). When added to a batter (that is, in the presence of water), these two powders chemically react and release carbon dioxide, and the bubbles trapped in the batter result in a lovely sponge.
The recipe I decided on comes from Tarla Dalal's Microwave Desi Khana (desi is a term for "Indian" and khana is simply "Food").
This booklet is a cute little resource for making a bunch of Indian dishes entirely in the microwave. In the microwave, the dhokla is neatly made in 4 minutes or so. The recipe called for citric acid crystals to add tang to the batter and I was able to buy these in the Indian section of the international market. I could not find the Eno's fruit salt, and just substituted equal parts of citric acid and baking powder. Microwaves can vary quite a bit, so you may have to adjust the time required to cook the dhokla in your microwave. The tempering is an essential component of the dhokla. To my palate, the crunchy sesame seeds in the tempering are the best bit!
Instant Microwave Dhokla
(Adapted from Microwave Desi Khana by Tarla Dalal, makes 6 wedges, serves 2-3)
1. Grease/ Spray a microwave-safe bowl with vegetable oil and set aside. I used a 4-cup round Pyrex bowl.
2. In another bowl, combine 1/2 cup besan (chickpea flour), 1 tbsp rawa (semolina), 1/4 tsp citric acid crystals, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp finely minced ginger, 1 finely minced chili and salt to taste. Stir to mix, then add 1/2 cup water and mix well.
3. Combine 3/4 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp citric acid, then sprinkle it on the batter. Sprinkle a tablespoon of water on the powder to get the reaction started. Stir it gently into the batter, you will see merry bubbles forming!
4. Microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes or until the surface no longer looks very wet. Let the bowl stand for 2 more minutes (it will continue to cook during this time). At this time, the dhokla cake will leave the sides of the bowl. Invert onto a serving dish.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the tempering. Heat 1 tbsp oil, then add 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, pinch of asafoetida and 1 tbsp sesame seeds. Take the tempering off the heat, stir in 2 tbsp minced cilantro and pour the tempering mixture over the dhokla. Cut into wedges and serve warm.
The verdict: While this is an instant microwave dhokla and will never taste exactly like the real thing, it still tastes great! I am very glad to add this recipe to my repertoire for a hot and tasty snack that is ready from start to finish in under 10 minutes. It will definitely satisfy tea-time cravings and feed friends who drop in unexpectedly. I think it tastes just fine by itself, but of course it would be even better with some tamarind chutney or green chutney.
Thanks, Meeta, for hosting! I'll be back in a couple of days, with another recipe prominently featuring sesame. Any guesses?
For the round-up, featuring a multitude of tasty savory cakes, click here!