Millets and multi-grain dosas? In the south of India it is a way of life and not just a fad says Chef N Gopi of the Hyatt Regency, Mumbai

Filter kaapi and breakfast with chef N Gopi,
 He is the executive chef of the Hyatt Regency Hotel Mumbai

I have consciously tried to make millets a part of my diet these days and a place where they feature often is in South Indian food. Over a breakfast of ragi (finger millet) and multigrain dosas there, I spoke to N Gopi, executive chef of the Hyatt Regency Mumbai. During the conversation, I got tips from the chef on how to enjoy these dishes to their fullest and also got to know about the role millets play in his native Tamilian cuisine. We also spoke about the correct technique to be followed for drinking filter kaapi should be had and how podi and ghee should be added to idlis and to the concept of seasonal eating and making the most of local produce that are the cornerstones of South Indian food. I have tried to share some of what I learnt through this post with you.

Where ragi (finger millets) are a way of life and not just something that is trendy today

“I have got a ragi dosa for you and I suggest that we add some finely chopped onions in it. The natural sweetness of the onions help counter the slight bitterness of ragi.”

Ragi is also known as nachni. It is a form of millet (finger millet), popular especially in the south of India. I had recently written about my quest for finding millet based dishes. This spawns from the fact that millets are supposed to have a low glycemic index and that is a big part of the diet plan that I have been advised to follow at present. I first had a millet dosa in the Whitefield Marriott Hotel in Bangalore and then, most recently, at Madras Diaries, a newly opened South Indian restaurant at Bandra in Mumbai where I live. In my posts, I had referred to the ‘nutty’ flavour of the ragi based idli and uthapa that I had tried there and in the ragi bread from The Baker’s Dozen.

I guess that this was the ‘bitter’ taste that Chef N Gopi of the Hyatt Regency, Mumbai, where I was having breakfast last Sunday, was referring to. His suggestion indeed turned out to be correct. The onions added a beautiful dimension to the dosa. 

Chef Gopi then joined us for breakfast and I ended up having a detailed chat with him on ragi in particular and the world of South Indian food in general.

The nurturing ecosystem of millets

While listening to chef Gopi, a Tamilian himself, I realized how ingrained millets are in the culture of the south. That while for me, millets represented an experiment, in the south it has been a way of life from times immemorial.

Millets are consumed particularly in summer in the south, said Gopi, because of their inherent cooling properties. Farmers thrive on them, said Gopi. They have a hearty breakfast of a millet porridge/ gruel and then go off to work in the blazing sun, the millets being nature’s way of looking after them in the heat. 

Millets, as I quickly realised, are superfoods that are an integral part of a farmer's diet and not just a passing hipster fad. Ragi gruel/ porridge with salted anchovies is a most sought after combination down south, said Gopi. 

Fish, you ask? Yes, south Indians originally were non-vegetarian said Gopi, as are the majority of south Indians even today, including in his native Tamil Nadu. The consumption of chicken is recent though as it was game meat that dominated earlier... wild boar, rabbits, whatever one would get locally... and when near water- bodies, fish. It was all about what we call 'eat local' in modern parlance.

There’s a celebratory spirit associated with ragi too explained Gopi. It is a part of meals prepared during religious festivals at temples. Gopi told me that he has fond memories of going to the  local temple as a child with his grandmother where he had the ragi based prasads. A tale that reminded me of the bond between young and his grandmother in R K Narayanan's book, Swami and Friends, which was made into a classic TV series in the 1980s.

Multigrain dosas and the living culture of the south

My ragi and multigrain dosa smile

There were multigrain dosas available at the dosa counter at the Hyatt Regency that morning and I requested for one of those too. The chef’s suggestion this time, was to add the red chilli and garlic based Mysore masala paste on the dosa.

“Not everyone like the taste and texture of multigrains and adding the paste helps balances this,” said Gopi and once again he was right. The Mysore masala paste did indeed elevate the dosa that I had to a higher plane. The texture of the dosa was pleasant and multi-dimensional. Crisp on the edges and softer inside. I had tried a multi-grain dosa at a luxury hotel in Delhi recently, and the texture of the latter was a bit limp compared to the one that I had for breakfast that dat at the Glass House at the Hyatt Regency.

Multi-grain dosas are a modern innovation in a manner of speaking,” explained chef Gopi. Unlike the ragi dosa, there is no fixed tradition to follow while making multigrain dosas, he said. Every chef brings in his or her individuality to this but then that’s the beauty of the versatility that dosas offer as a dish. Their ability to adapt makes them so exciting. 

I remember having a kheema dosa way back in 1981 with my parents at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata and then a prawn dosa at Just Dosas (now shut) in Mumbai in the early 2000s. Mumbai is of course the home of the spring dosa which has the cabbage filling which goes into spring rolls and Chinese sauces too. The ever smiling grandpa, chef Rajan of the ITC Grand Central in Mumbai is known for the variety of dosas he whips up every day. Chef Gopi said that he once did a festival at the Hyatt in Chennai which featured 100 varieties of dosas. Thankfully, he didn't ruffle the feathers of the traditionalists of Chennai and has lived to tell the tale

Chef Gopi’s multigrain dosas have a mix of grains such as oats and millets such as jowar, bajra, ragi and many more. I couldn’t pin him down to the exact mix. He did share the secret to the lovely texture of his multigrain dosa though. 

Two parts dosa batter (rice and udad dal) and one part multigrain mix. Using just multigrain could lead to limp dosas said Gopi. The addition of the dosa batter helps hold and bind the batter better and embellishes the texture he explained.

What you always wanted to know about South Indian food but were afraid to ask

Chef Gopi called for a filter kaapi while we chatted, He then demonstrated the 'tumbler to bowl and back to tumbler' action that helps cool the coffee, and to which you then add sugar and drink, I do not add sugar to my coffee anymore though so I skipped the last step and revelled in the intensity of the brew. 

“Do you drink the coffee from the bowl or the tumbler,” I asked Gopi. “Both,” was his answer accompanied by a smile.

I requested for some idlis too. There were the basic white idlis and the same with shredded vegetable idlis on offer.

“Did you know that idlis were originally black in colour and not white?” asked Gopi. “They are supposed to have originated in Indonesia where they used only udad dal and hence the idlis were dark in colour. The idea of idlis is said to have been brought back to India during the Chola empire by the Chola dynasty who had at one point invaded Indonesia. Given that rice was consumed back in India, the locals added rice to the idli mix and that’s how the idli became white in colour as the story goes.”

This story of the origin of idlis is open to debate of course but it does hint at the fascinating way food travels. Take for example the chingri malai curry of Bengal which is said to have been brought back by fellow Bengalis who worked in Malaysia at the time of the British rule. They are said to have been impressed by the local coconut milk based curry and came back and cooked versions of it. The name Malai curry is said to be an approximation of Malay curry! 

With the idlis at the Hyatt Regency were served a mix of chutneys and I was particularly awe-struck by the freshness of one. “That’s the kudalai,” explained Gopi and the mix includes a number of herbs such as curry leaves and this adds to its freshness.”

Many of these nuances to the south Indian food at the Hyatt Regency were additions of chef Gopi. The result of a knowledge that evidently ran his blood as they say.

Gopi told me that he was the one who insisted that the coconut for the chutneys be ground fresh every morning in the hotel every morning as that added an extra dimension of taste and flavour to it. That I realised was the secret behind the strong coconut hit in the coconut chutney that I had just tasted. I know that some of the traditional Malvani restaurants such as Sindhudurg in Dadar grind the coconut fresh for their curries as does the small, family run restaurant called Grant House at CST, whose founder had come from Hyderabad. This does add a very vibrant layer to the food that they serve. 

I noticed that the sambar at the Hyatt was not the sweet version. Gopi said that he was the one who changed the sambar here from the sweetish Udupi variety served earlier to the hot and tangy Tamil one. “Sambars are of many types,” said Gopi. "They add jaggery in Ududpi, shaved coconut at times in Kerala. In our (Tamilian) sambar too, the amount of vegetables added differ from person to person and occasion to occasion. We need sambar on the side even while having non-vegetarian food as the meal seems incomplete without it.”

What else did I learn from chef Gopi on south Indian food? 

Well, there the fact that rava (semolina) dosas should be made on a flat surface which has already been heated as the dosa gets lumpy otherwise. And, that the ‘set dosa’, should have three layers and that you can stuff anything in between and that the addition of beaten rice flakes or chiwda/pohe/ cheere is critical to getting the batter for this right.

The most important thing that I learnt from chef Gopi about south Indian food, is that more than being bound by fixed rules or a set way of doing things, it is the spirit to celebrate food and eat well and to make the most of what nature makes available to one, that drives the south Indian cooking tradition. 

To me, this is what makes it a living culture. One which evolves over the ages and thereby remains timeless. It is no wonder, I relaised, that folks in Chennai still eat traditional south Indian fare for breakfast and not modern westernised cereal and egg and toast ones.

It is this tradition of innovation, I guess, that allowed Gopi to add toasted sesame seeds to his milagai podi mix, first in his mother’s kitchen, and then in the hotel kitchen. 

A story that I listened to with fascination, as chef Gopi mixed the podi (dry roasted chillies and spices) in a bowl of ghee and then poured the mix over the white idlis as they began to take the hues of Holi. 

Think Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in the Rang Barase song in Silsila and you will know what I mean!

Snow White Idlis

Chef Gopi indulges in some podi and ghee action

Holi Hai

Going back to ones roots

Chef Gopi told me that his initial training as a chef was in Italian and Asian cuisines. He has worked across India and outside of the country too and has specialised in these cuisines through his professional career. 

In recent years however, Gopi told me, he has felt a renewed interest in his own native Tamil cuisine. While he still focuses on Italian and Asian food because of work, he has spent a considerable time understanding the principles behind the food he has grown up on and is trying to give his diners a taste of this.

I found a parallel between his story and mine. I was born abroad and was not fond of Bengali food as a child. I learnt to ‘accept’ Bengali food only after we moved into Kolkata. I began to miss it (!) after I moved out of Kolkata and in to Mumbai. While eating out, western and Asian food fascinated me a lot more back then than Indian food did. I still enjoy trying out international cuisines, but as I grow older, I have begun to appreciate both Indian and my native Bengali food a lot more than I ever did before and my writing possibly reflects that.

To hear directly from chef Gopi on the subject of dosas, please click on the video below that K kindly shot for us . Sorry for the audio issues but chef Gopi is a rather soft spoken person.

Disclaimer:  I was at the Hyatt as their guest last weekend to try out the new menu at Stax, their Italian restaurant, which was launched on the Italian national day. Chef Gopi’s understanding of flavours was evident in the Italian food that he and his team had put out and which we enjoyed both at the dinner and the brunch the next day.  Here are some pictures from the brunch.

Millet breads at Stax

An intensely flavoured and rather brilliant seafood soup at Stax

Delicately textured tortellini, stuffed with soft pulled duck
and kissed with a butter and sage reduction at Stax.

Also of interest:

  1. My post on how I have changed the way I eat
  2. The story of Madras Diaries and their millets love
  3. My experience of eating South Indian vegetarian tiffin in Chennai
  4. Link to order my book, The Travelling Belly, where I have written extensively about my experience of eating across south India