One of the truly lovely things about Indian food is how, though there is often a through line between neighboring cuisines, the small differences in the spices used, the cooking techniques deployed, or in some other seemingly inconsequential department, can yield dishes that feel utterly distinct from each other.
Witness the dosa. The word dosa has long been used—both in India and in the West—as a catch-all to describe all manner of lentil- and rice-based crêpes. Though most people think of the famous burnished-gold dosas of the Mangalore coast of Karnataka when they hear the word, dosas come in a dizzying variety of shapes and tastes. Some ferment for longer, some are barely fermented at all; some have spices ground into their batters, others have grated vegetables added to them; some even have coconut in them and are cooked without the addition of any oil to the pan.
Though Andhra cooks would probably object to this dish being characterized as a kind of dosa, for the uninitiated, this is the easiest way to describe it. A pesarattu is very like a dosa, in that it is a crêpe made out of lentils and rice, but its flavor and the manner in which it is eaten are so distinctive that pointing out the obvious similarities between the two dishes only seems to do it a disservice.
I first had pesarattu when my sister cooked it for me. She, in turn, got the recipe from her mother-in-law, a formidable Andhra cook. I've been a great fan ever since I tasted my first pesarattu. The batter is tinted a faint almost-mint green from the green gram in it, and the ginger and green chillies add a lovely savory note to the pesarattu. Finally, the thing that seems to make pesararattu pesarattu, at least for me, is the fiery ginger thokku that’s served alongside it. It has a raw, vibrant, and incredibly intense flavor, which the herbal, crisp, and deeply delicious pesarattu provides the perfect complement to.
A note on using a cast-iron pan: I recommend using a cast-iron skillet to cook your pesarattu. The secret to making a good pesarattu is that the batter needs to initially stick to the pan. The ghee that gets drizzled on top of the cooking crêpe is what helps it release from the cooking surface. There are two reasons why this initial sticking is important. It encourages a deep caramelization, giving you a crêpe that is crisp and well-fried and not merely golden-brown on the surface. Secondly, the batter needs to stick slightly to the pan in order for you to be able to spread it properly. Using a nonstick pan makes it close to impossible to properly spread the batter since it will just slide over the surface of the pan. I should add, though, that even better than a cast-iron skillet is a tava or a griddle or some other cast-iron pan that has no sides. This will make it easier for you to slide your spatula under the pesarattu when it’s done cooking.
Makes enough batter for 8–10 six-inch crêpes
1 cup moong dhal
¼ cup raw rice
½-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2–3 green chillies, stems removed (or to taste)
1 tsp toasted cumin seed, powdered
Salt to taste
Wash the rice and moong dhal together in cool water, watching for and removing any stray bits of stick, or any grit.
Leave the lentils and rice to soak overnight in a cool place, covered with at least two inches of water.
When you’re ready to start cooking the pesarattu, drain the rice and lentils, reserving a cup or so of the water.
Pour the soaked lentils and rice into a blender jar along with the ginger, green chillies, cumin, and salt.
Grind the ingredients together to form a pourable batter, adding the soaking liquid as you work till the batter is smooth and the consistency of very thick heavy cream. Note that you may not have to use all the reserved liquid.
Pour the batter into a bowl and stir well to make sure that it is well-combined.
Heat a cast-iron skillet, griddle, or tava over medium heat. Make sure that the surface of the pan is completely free of any cooked-on or charred bits of food. These will make the pesarattu stick when they’re cooking. Keep a small jar of melted ghee ready at hand to cook the pesarattu.
Preheat the pan for at least 5 minutes, or till it begins to start lightly smoking.
Dab a folded-up piece of paper towel in the melted ghee and vigorously rub the surface of the pan with it. The idea is to just give a shine to the surface of the pan—not to add enough ghee to the pan to cook the pesarattu.
Using a steel ladle, pour ¼ cup of the batter into the center of the pan. Using the bottom of the ladle, spread the batter out using a continuous, widening spiral motion. It can take a while to get the hang of this, so work slowly and carefully and go faster once you’ve mastered it. You should be left with a crêpe that is about 6” wide with a spiral channel radiating out from the center, formed by the bottom of your ladle. The track left by your ladle should be considerably thinner than the rest of the crêpe—you should just about be able to see the bottom of the pan through it.
Working quickly, drizzle a teaspoon of ghee over the thinner portions of the crêpe made by your ladle—this allows the ghee to penetrate the surface of the pesarattu and make the bottom crisp and golden.
Drizzle another half teaspoon of ghee around the edges of the pesarattu. It should begin to sizzle.
Getting the temperature of the pan exactly right is important when making pesarattu—as with all pancakes. You want it to be hot enough that the batter cooks all the way through and the bottom gets well-browned but you don’t want it too hot. Invariably you’ll only strike this balance after your second or third pesarattu, so don’t be disheartened if your first couple of pesarattu don’t turn out picture-perfect.
When the pesarattu is cooked through, remove it from the pan using a sturdy metal spatula.
Fold it in half and serve it while still hot with a dollop of ginger or onion thokku.
Make sure to wipe your pan clean between each pesarattu.