Zen & the art of eating the (Mysore) Masala Dosa

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from San Francisco: Everybody has their own, unique kink. The kink may be disgusting to some, obnoxious to others, but to the owner of the kink, it is his trademark trait, the calling card of his personality, his USP. A brave few show it off; most sheepishly hide it from the world.

When the cell phone became a status symbol, my SWE-brother’s stated mission in life was to gauge the owner by looking at the size of the instrument. The smaller the gizmo, the bigger the a******, was his execrable line till, horror!, a New York Times reporter wrote a book using a similar analogy: the bigger the sport utility vehicle, the bigger the jerk behind the wheel.

An extrovert colleague, who shall go unnamed (wink, wink), would play a guessing game whereever we went. He would inspect the posture, clothes, spectacles, hairstyle, bags and shoes of those around him to arrive at their profession. If one of those happened to come and sit near us, he would strike up a conversation and ask point blank. (Hate to say this, Mr Smart was right many times.)

Collegial stuff like this might seem trivial and thoroughly judgmental in the context of churumuri‘s obsession with the “big picture”. But fun, harmless, time-pass activities like these reassure us that there is a life beyond corruption, secularism, communalism, casteism, criminality, elections and such like.

And it is only idiots who do not have any such idiosyncracies.

All this is by way of a preface for my own little kink: which is to watch members of the human species tackle the Masala Dosa on the sly, and to make mental notes of how they are likely to approach “similar situations” that they will unfold in life. (As you can see, I am couching my words to evade the stern editor!)

Of course, you might say that it’s not good table manners to watch other people eat. But, hey, it’s my kink, you can choose yours.

(Disclaimer: I do not have any interest in supervising the fate of the Set Dosa, Plain Dosa, Rava Dosa, Onion Dosa, Ragi Dosa, or any dosa any chef anywhere can whip up at the hands of aficionados. The only dosa that pulls my pop-psychological antenna up is the Masala Dosa.)


To me, the world is clearly divided into Masala Dosa-eaters and potential Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto both of them. (There are, as you will have no doubt noticed from your own culinary observations, no former Masala Dosa-eaters, and praise be unto the Masala Dosa for that.)

There are two clear reasons why the Masala Dosa makes for such a rivetting visual experience, even if it sounds weirdly voyeuristic. One, the fold. Two, the aloo gedde palya—the “lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices”—which lies beneath the fold.

(In some parts of Andhra Pradesh, the masala of the dosa comes sacrilegiously separately in an open-top katori, like the chutney and sambar. And on Ibrahim Sahib Street in Bangalore, behind Commercial Street, Tamil families used to stuff the Masala Dosa with shavige (vermicelli) baath and some or the other rice baath. But we are not talking of the same thing.)

We are talking of the genuine article here: the Masala Dosa.

The genuine Mysore Masala Dosa gets even more interesting because there is an additional bit of suspense built into its wafer-thin architecture. Namely, the coating of red or green chutney on top of which sits the alloo-gedde palya. Like the girl in the picture (above) there are some, not many, who just cannot wait to see just what lies below the dark to golden brown crackle.

Two further caveats here. One, we are not taking into account the “Set Masala Dosa” where instead of one Masala Dosa folded on both sides, we have two smaller Dosas with a single fold. In some restaurants in Mysore, they serve palya in one and saagu in the other as if to heighten the suspense. And two, we are not talking of those silly pyramid-like vertical Masala Dosas that were the rage in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

So, by virtue of having watched countless Indians, non-resident Indians, and foreigners in several cities and countries dig into the “rice pancake with a lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions, and spices” in restaurants, weddings, dosa camps and other public settings, I believe I have the requisite authority vested in me by long years of fermentation, to decree that there are exactly five kinds of Masala Dosa eaters in the world.

1) Those who start at the top

2) Those who start from the bottom

3) Those who work at the sides

4) Those who pierce the middle

5) Those who open the fold

We could argue that all these five positions depend on the angle in which the dosa is placed. But, generally speaking, the Masala Dosa seems to settle down at a 30 to 45-degree angle in most plates, with a clearly identifiable top and bottom.


In my book (and I am unanimous about it!) those who start at the top of the Masala Dosa are mostly middle-aged men and women, and those older. These are the well-settled, organised lot, who have cracked the big mysteries of life. If they weren’t dealing with something so serious as eating a dosa, they would be sending off rockets into space. They believe in sequencing, they believe things must be done in a particular way, they believe the Masala Dosa must be eaten in a particular way. They have seen enough Masala Dosas to know what they will meet when they get in. And they have the patience to wait.

Those who start at the bottom are slightly younger, slightly more adventurous. These could be men or women. Young adults in their first or second jobs. They will effortlessly take a couple of bites from the bottom and won’t hesitate to break the sequence and try the top either. And then come back to the bottom to start all over again. There is no recognisable pattern. They believe it is still too early to decide either way. They will take it whichever way it comes.

Those who work at the sides of the Masala Dosa are usually, but not always, younger boys and girls either in love or on a fitness spree. They nibble tenderly at the roasted edges of the dosa, while they look meaningfully into the eyes of their partner or while they while away time. Each tiny crust takes an eon to melt in their mouths. This accomplishes two things for them. They spend the requisite time in conversation and they create the perception in their own minds of having eaten. Since the dosa is only incidental to their core objective, it is not unsurprising to see them leave midway.

Those who pierce the centre, delve into the middle, and wolf down the palya straightaway with the first bite are mostly young boys and teenagers. They have done the dosa in the past, they know where their sustenance for the tennis game will come from, they are hungry, and they get down to business without much ado. It’s a no-fuss relationship.

The guys who open the fold have little poetry in their hearts. They are matter-of-fact types. They know that the palya is just a small little thing in the middle. They know that if you start at the top or bottom and make your way in, there will be very little dosa left to deal with the palya. So, we might as well open the damn thing and spread it across. This demographic is also most likely to pour the chutney on top of the palya, and order a fresh katori of chutney before taking the first bite.

So, how do you do the Masala Dosa, and what does it say about who you are?

Photograph: courtesy BBC

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32 Responses to “Zen & the art of eating the (Mysore) Masala Dosa”

  1. OtherWise Says:

    Here is one of the mail forwards I got; regarding

    Masala Dosa and the Way of Life:
    There are many ways to eat a masala dosa .What ever the way one eats; there is a very good reason for doing that. It shows some traits of the person that is you.

    Case 1: People who open the masala dosa and eat it: These are the people who are very open about their life. Everyone one the persons friends would know all about him/her. I have generally seen guys do this rather than girls. Some people think that it is a gross way of eating but in truth, these people are just portraying who they are and how their life is.

    Case 2: People who start from both end and approach the masala later: These are the people who like to wait for the exiting things to come to their life. Sadly when the times comes, they are not too interested or just do not know how to enjoy it to the fullest. These are the folks who just want life as either dry or exiting. They just do not know how to phase their life and enjoy it no matter what. There are two types of people within this group

    Case 2.1: People who do not finish all the masala: These folks just do not care as much for the fun times as they are already brought down by the harsh reality of life. The dry periods in their life has left them with so much scars that they do not want to be really happy when the time is right. They just take only as much as they needed and end their life. A very sorry state indeed.

    Case 2.2: People who finish all the masala with the little dosa they have: These are the folks who just are the extremes. They just go all out in life. No matter it is dark or bright. They may not enjoy life to the fullest but they sure make sure that they get every single good and bad thing out of life. Sometimes these folks are really hard to get along with. They are either your best friends or your worst enemies. They do not have a middle path at all.

    Case 3: People who start from the middle and proceed to both ends: These are the people who like to get right to what they think is their best part of life. Usually these guys finish of the good portions in a hurry and get stuck with nothing but worst parts of their life. The thing to note among these people is that the tendency to burn out very early in their life. Like the above case, there are two kinds of people in this group too.

    Case 3.1: People who do not finish the dosa: These folks are really the saddest of people. They are the ones who tend to end their life as soon as it hits the bad patch. For them, they only need and want the best things in life and nothing more. Typically, they are not prepared or tuned to life as a whole. They just want to enjoy from first till last. Sadly, no one in the world can live without even an ounce of sadness in life. Not even the richest of the richest. But to self destruct at the mere sign of distress is very bad. That is what these guys tend to do. Some learn to live life but most of them do not.

    Case 3.1: People who do finish the dosa: These folks are the typical human beings. We all enjoy the greatest of times in life and push the sad parts thinking about the great times in life. Typically the plate is clean and nothing is left for fate or in life. Happiness and sadness are part of life and these guys know that and are kind of prepared for it. Life is not always happy but there are moments of happiness here and there.

    Case 4: People who eat the dosa making sure that the masala lasts for the whole dosa: These people are very rare. These are the people who like to attain balance in their life. It is hard to displease these people and it is hard to make them really happy. They like their balance and are very protective of it. Sadly these are the people who tend to be lonely as anyone else may upset the balance of their system. Perfectionist to the core and are very careful. These guys do not make the best company but are needed in any group to make the group from going hay wire.

    Case 5: People who do not share and eat the dosa as if it is precious: These folks are very protective about their life. They do not want anyone to come and interfere in their life. They like to hide their true nature and intensions for their benefit. Beware of such people as they are in every group for their own need and nothing else.

    Case 6: People who offer their first bite to others: These guys are overly friendly. They do anything to be part of a group and make everyone feel like the group is important than the individuals. They are the glue that holds any group together. They are very friendly and bring the best of all the others in the group. They go out of their way to help other friends. Most groups should have a person like this and they are the ones who plan the group outings and other group activities. Once this person is out of the group, typically the group slowly falls apart.

    Case 7: People who take one or two bites and then offer the dosa to others: These guys care about friends and friendship but they take their time to get into the group. They take their time in making friends and they typically are very committed once into the friendship. These guys like to always be in the side lines and typically do not jump into anything in life. They always take their time to analyze the situation and then make a decision. These guys take the better safe than sorry approach.

    Case 8: People who wait for others to make the offer first: Typical people I must say. They are unsure about everything. Even if they wanted to offer, they will wait till the other person offers the food first. If the other person is silent, so are these people. They are the followers. They do terrific idea, they will pitch it to someone else and get their advice before proceeding. Sadly, most of the elderly world like these types of people.

    Case 9: People who offer dosa only when they cannot finish it on their own: You all may be familiar with these kinds of people. People who are very generous only when all their needs are fulfilled. These folks are selfish but at the same time not misers or greedy. They just want to satisfy themselves before they give it to the world. They typically do not stuff themselves nor do they tend to starve. They are very good people who would give you the best of advices in life. They would make sure that you are not sad following their advice.

    Case 10: People who offer the whole dosa and eat from others plates: These folks are other extreme. They know what they want, they get what they want but they cannot enjoy what they want. Instead they tend to settle for other things in life which satisfies the needs but does not satisfy the person completely. These guys are termed as born losers cause even when they have the thing they wanted, they can’t stop others from stealing it from them.

    So next time you sit with a person eating a masala dosa, look closely and see if he falls into one of the above categories. You may be surprised as how much it reveals about the person*

  2. Sujata Rajpal Says:

    what a fine analysis of humble dosa and dosa eaters. It is amazing how a thesis can be written just on masal dosa.
    There is one more category of dosa eaters – people who eat dosa with fork and knife. It is a common sight to see people in Cannaught Place Coffee House eating dosa with fork and knife. Don’t know in which category to put them but they really look non- dosa type .

  3. vinay Says:

    man…too long an yawn for something so near and dear to us

  4. Zen and the art of eating the (Mysore) Masala Dosa | DesiPundit Says:

    […] Whenever I go to one of the hundreds of Udipi restaurants in Bengaluru, I keep looking at the way a Masala Dosa is eaten. Arvind (who I am sure has been doing the same for ages)does a socio-economic profiling of the average Masala Dosa eater. […]

  5. Retrosexual Says:

    Of course, if it is the egg dosa (remember Empire on Church Street?), there would not be much difference between 1 and 3. No?

  6. mayura Says:

    There was a lady from Tamilnadu, Madurai Kamaraj University (I forget her name), who got her Phd, writing a thesis on Masala Dosa’s origins. As per this lady it originated during the Chola reign of Tamilnadu.

  7. Aatmasakshi Says:

    @ Arvind

    What rot, but what delightful rot!

    When you say the way people handle a masala dosa gives you an insight of how they might approach “similar situations”, do you mean what I think you mean?!

  8. Jennifer Says:

    In Puducherry some years back I saw foreigners eating masala dosa like a burrito- held in their hands- sandwich types. It was quite a sight. I was tempted to photograph them!!

  9. ERR Says:

    We had a Dutch boss- Guert Nibbelink- whose staple food on most days used to be Mysore masala Dose.He would scout for hotels who would make MMS (Ordinary Masala dosa was a strict ‘no no’ for him).

    He would eat the dosa with chutney and sambhar , as if a surgeon doing a perepheral surgery around an organ- going round and round until you come to the sanctum sanctorum – the Alugadde and eerulli palya.He would pull the dose on which the palya sat and only after finishing all of dosa would he set his eyes on Palya.

    Once one of my colleagues showed how it is to be eaten by alternately mixing with palya and chutney, sambhar.He said ‘ I really like this way.Anyway, it’s all going to be the same at the end!’

  10. Faldo Says:

    In several places, I have seen the masala dosa eaten with a fork and spoon. Then there are some who eat the masale dose like chapatti/subji. The folded sandwich and rolled burrito styles are other ways people approach this. In many cities outside of Mysore/ Bangaluru the Mysore masale is not coated with red chutney over the filling but lined with chatni-pudi.

  11. Flatfooter Says:

    Wonderful piece! Ahh – I miss MD and Chutney in the true Mysore/Bengaluru style (lots of Chutney). I know people who think Aloogadde palya itself is masala..
    I strongly think that one whole chapter should be included and dedicated in school textbooks for Masala Dose :)

  12. Gaby Says:

    I always thot we Kannadigas called it Masaal DosE- the ‘dosA’ being a vikaara rupa brought in either by our neighbours from Madras or rulers from Delhi.also as a Kannadathi Ive never asked for a ‘ Katori’ of anything!

  13. Poli Hudga Says:

    My pit stop tomorrow : CTR Malleshwaram …. will sit in nice corner and observe the above observations ;) !


    You are right, its “DOSE” in all forms of kannada & not that idiotic sounding DOSA … I am annoyed when some of my colleagues pronounce it as DOSHA … wtf ? I think this Dosha of spelling DOSE as DOSHA/DOSA came from our Mallu/tambi friends.

  14. Gouri Satya Says:

    An excellent thesis on Masale Dose. Where did it take its birth – Udupi or Mysore? I remember those days when only tasteless ‘Sada Dose’ were being served in Mysore hotels (Vidyarthi Bhavan). They were not like the present ‘Set Dose’ but bigger in size like the regular ‘Plain Dose’, but without the greesy oil. But around 48-50s, the hotels began to serve the Masale Dose and soon it became popular.

    The choices are many in Masale Dose of today — ‘Benne Masale Dose’, ‘Kurma Masale Dose’, ‘Sagu Masale’ etc. Again there are choices — ‘Roast Masale (Dose), ‘Double Roast Masale’ (Dose). I know what the taste of the particular customer, when the ‘Mani’ shouts the way the customer wants his Masala Dosa.

    The Dose differes in taste from one hotel to another – try the GTR Masale Dose or the Masale Dose with Benne on the top as served in Kundar’s Darshini in Shivarampet, or the famous hotel in Nazarbad, now having branches in other places in Mysore (forgot the name, but remember the Dose taste!). Oh! what a variety and what a wonderful taste!

    Unfortunately, I miss my Raju Hotel (Agrahara) Masale Dose.

  15. tgfi Says:

    you owe each one who reads this and leaves a comment one masala dosa please! :)

  16. pulikeshi the last Says:

    Thanks, Gaby. Masale dose is not the same thing as masaala dosa. Tharakaari haakidda maathrakke namma “huli” sambaar aagabaaradu.
    Endu thilivudo manujakula, ithyaadi.

  17. Dr. Sree Reddy Says:

    It should be masale dose not masala dosa in Kannada.

  18. Nastika Says:

    Hey Gouri Satya, the famous hotel in Nazarbad is ‘Mylary’. The original is still there. As far as I know they don’t have any branches – other people have opened new hotels with that name. They don’t have anything to do with the original.

  19. Poornima Says:

    Thanks Gaby Thangi. Masala dose sounds much better. I hate when my north indian friends call it ‘dosa’, ‘upama’ ‘rava dosa’ etc.
    I don’t like the dose served in mysore hotels. they are not the typical masale dose. The one in Vidyarthi bhavan is good and also some darshinis in Bangalore. I hope we get some good ones in Mysore. I love to eat more of chutney than dose. So I order 3 chutneys along with dose.

  20. RZD Says:

    ah, interesting thoughts, I should observe more. How about being of type 1/type2, at times I could fall into 1 (tho I am not your typical belonging to 1 category!) and most times would be in 2 (that’s well, more like me)

  21. Subbulakshni Says:

    Masala Dose is the brain child of Udupi Krishna Bhat, who took it to Madras via Woodlands.
    It is the Kannadigas who invented dose and iddali. we have oldest reference to it in our classic literature. Tamils only copied us and made dose – dosai and iddali as idli.
    all “Tindi” are the contribution of Karnartaka.

  22. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Dear All,

    Never mind the analaysis! But what a disgusting photo!! For a moment I thought this was some strange exotic fried dog dish that is usually offered in Seoul South Korea perhaps!

    Sheesh our Dose eating champions have great appetite but no sensitiity. Sorry resistance is useless this was a disgusting photo!!!

  23. Gaby Says:

    Subbulakshmi Athhe,

    Vaddaradhane by Shivakoti Acarya ( Rashtrakoota times)of the 10th century names Iddalige ( Idli ), Holige (Holige) and Sevige ( ? Vermicelli). The 12th century encyclopedia Manasollaasa of Somashekhara Ballala III (Kalyani Chalukya) is a veritable treasure house of recipes and cooking styles. Lets not forget that these were empires with catholic tastes and wide trading hinterlands.

    In fact there are authorities who believe that particularly in South India our eating practices are practically unchanged ( till of course 10-15 years ago) from possibly 800 years- pre-Vijayanagar eras!

  24. saumyae Says:

    Idakkinta atleast swalpa nadroo uttamavagiro photo sigle illva nimage?

  25. Gouri Satya Says:

    Thanks Nastika, for reminding the ‘Mailari’ hotel name. When I made enquiries, those running Mailari branches claim that they are relatives. Even in their sign boards, they have claimed it is a branch of the Nazarbad Mailari.

    Poornima, the Vidyarthi Bhavan, I have referred is not the one in Basavanagudi in Bangalore, but the old one in Jaganmohan Palace Road in the 50s-60s. It was shutdown long back.

  26. pulikeshi the last Says:

    Gaby, I salute you for the references you have provided.

    I don’t understand why we say “thayrode” instead of “mosarode” or “wada” instead of of “wade.” In S. M. Krishna’s home taluq it is still “wade.”
    I don’t understand why pakka Kannadigas from places like Shikaaaripura add the suffix “-an” to their names either. (Whatever happened to him?) Krishnan, Raman, Subramanyan, etc. Oh yes, M. V. Rajashekharan. Iyengaars and other Tamil speaking groups at least have a reason to do that.

    Did Lallu Prasad call us “kachra log” because he wasn’t happy with our wada, dosa, saambaar, etc?

    Why can we not find Kannadigaru to run or destroy the Kannada Culture department?

    India is a fiction. Kannada and Kannadigas are real.

  27. Otherview Says:

    LOL…very astute observations, let me take it a step further.

    I thought the 5 ways also represent the way people have sex. May be the characters will also fit into the same catergories and can be divided into same categories.

  28. soumya Says:

    Relished this piece.The next time I eat one, I’ll observe my category!!Masale Dose was supposedly invented in the hotel adjoining Udupi Sri Krishna temple.As the hotel shares a common wall with the temple, the original does not have onion in its palya. Very tasty, nevertheless – its all in that red chutney inside the dose.

  29. soumya Says:

    And also the hittu.

  30. Celine Says:

    My style is # 4 but do not fall in the category of “mostly young boys and teenagers.” That makes me want to eat a masala dosa today. Will pass by Udupi after office hours this evening.:)

  31. Sam Roy Says:

    The way I used to eat my masala Dosa was standard in our rural Bengal which had a Dosa of its own (it was called Shoru Chukli and it was eaten with jaggery or Aloo Dum – the gravy variety).

    The way I nowadays eat Masala Dosa is different. I fold the two sides towards the middle, thus getting a short, thick patty-like object with much Dosa batter on one side and a bit less on the other. Tucked up this way, the darn thing just cannot come off. And now I tackle it either with my hands, picking it up and biting into it like into a piece of toast or, in “society”, with a knife and fork.

    So where do I fit in? In a padded cell, may be?

  32. Arthur Colman Says:

    Whew! i like to experiment with new foods and as i love Indian food i tried Lamb Masala Dosa – for the first time – without knowing what it looked like nor how to attack it. I was perplexed… Do i use a fork, do i pick it up? I started with a fork (from the middle) but as the fork approach did not seem to make sense I reverted to using my hands. I’m so glad that it was the appropiate approach! Do you know how long it took to figure this out. Nowhere on the web is there any mention of the appropriate etiquite – except here!

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