A taste of Lanka: hoppers and dosas

Hoppers and dosas comprise the sourdough section of my “Taste of Lanka” series. Both can be found throughout southern India and Lanka, and both make for an unbeatable meal or snack. They are at once light and refreshing, but when combined with a curry or two can sate the most ambitious of appetites. Their fragile and crispy outer edges lend them a strong visual appeal as well. From the architectural (not to mention culinary) flair of a well-made paper dosa, to the ordered beauty of a stack of counter-top hoppers, they impress in more ways than one. They cannot be ignored, especially once you know how good they taste.

Plain hoppers: a snack in a bowl or a bowl in a snack?

Let’s first focus on hoppers, also known as appam. Hoppers are often cooked in the late afternoon/early evening, and are a favourite amongst street-side vendors and restaurants. The bowl-shape makes them a perfect receptacle for curry, and draws an equally perfect parallel with the (almost) unmatched bread bowl of the West. As you can see from the picture above, the sides are thin and crispy, whilst the base is thicker and more doughy. When eating them, you start by breaking away the sides and using the shards to scoop up the curry. The real satisfaction, however, hits when you get to the base, using it to mop up the remaining curry. It’s a crescendo of sorts: the sides warm up the palate and the appetite, whilst the sourdough base provides a double hit of substance and flavour that provides a concluding accent to every hopper that you eat. Eat them fresh, and I bet you will become a hopperphile like I.

Egg hoppers, a.k.a. “The King of Hoppers”

Besides plain hoppers, two of the most common variants are egg and string hoppers. Whilst i’m not much of a fan of the string variety (think sourdough noodles…), egg hoppers are nothing less than a revelation. They’re like plain hoppers on steroids, as the crescendo is amplified by the semi-cooked egg that is nestled in the base. These things are so delicious that they can be eaten without curry and you won’t feel shortchanged in any way – a wonderful balance of doughiness, crispiness, and egginess. Parfait.

Ambaal’s @ Nuwara Eliya

Moving on, dosas. Dosas are far more ubiquitous than hoppers (outside of Lanka that is – the opposite is true in Lanka), and can be found throughout much of south and southeast Asia. Dosas are essentially large, folded sourdough pancakes that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and fillings: paper, masala, onion, rava, wheat, plain; you name it, they will dosa it. Being a bit of a purist, I usually stick to one of two variants – paper or masala. Whilst paper dosas are elegant, thin, and crispy (a bit like one big crisp or pappadum that you must break into edible parts with your fingers), masala dosas provide a more complete eating experience as they come stuffed with a spiced potatoes. One of the best masala dosas I have eaten in Lanka was at Ambaal’s – a vegetarian eatery in Nuwara Eliya.

Masala thosa

Ambaal’s masala dosa (LKR 120) may look a little limp and lifeless, but it was very large and immensely flavoursome. Whilst the spices of masala dosas are usually muted by the starchiness of the potato, Ambaal’s takes the bull by the horns and churns out dosas that brim with life and energy. Indeed, most of Ambaal’s patrons go there for the dosas (and tea) and nothing else, they’re that good.

Full of flavour

The beauty of Ambaal’s masala d. is that very don’t just rely on chilli and masala spices to determine the flavours, but on onion and fennel as well. Overall, this generates a more complex and complete taste experience. The sweetness of the lightly fried and thinly chopped onions counterbalances the chilli, whilst the pungency of the fennel seeds brings life and character to the masala. Every bite was invigorating, and I have the distinct feeling that it will be difficult to find anything that can match these little beauties.

Hoppers and dosas may not be exclusively or distinctively Sri Lankan, but they are nonetheless integral to the country’s food culture. They posses a delicate elegance that I find incredibly attractive, an almost feminine touch that helps to soften the kick of curry. Mild and unassuming, they linger in the mind long after the last mouthful has been dispatched to the stomach.

Ambaal’s Vegetarian Hotel
52A New Bazaar Street, Nuwara Eliya
Open daily


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