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It's all in the micro-organisms at vegetarian South Indian

If you haven't been to Jersey City's Newark Avenue lately, get on over. This strip of Indian businesses four blocks north of Journal Square has long been a source of bulk spices, cheap nuts, and surreal vegetables, but competition among restaurants has recently heated up, doubling the number in the last year to well over a dozen. Many specialize in the strictly meatless, dosa-driven cuisine of southern India, encompassing iddlies, vadas, and utthappams in addition to dosas, all concocted of ground and fermented batters of rice and lentils utilizing adventitious micro-organisms, making the recipes difficult to duplicate at home.

A little over a year ago I touted Dosa Hut, with a menu featuring multiple variations on the dosa, some involving (gasp!) Velveeta. The café was often thronged during peak weekend shopping times, but when Sri Ganesh's Dosa House opened recently just down the block, the old place emptied out and the new one instantly became mobbed. Just inside the front door presides a brass Ganesh wrapped in a white shawl; on our second visit an offering of bananas was cradled in one of his many forearms. Neophytes might want to stick with a serving of the plainish white dumplings called steam iddly ($3), then proceed to a butter masala dosa ($4), a thin crepe two feet in diameter wrapped around a potato-and-onion filling flavored with black mustard seed and curry leaf. Accompanying are homemade coconut and peanut chutneys, and all the free lentil soup ("sambhar") you can ladle from the steaming tureen at the end of the room. A sign cautions you not to waste any.

"Masala" refers to the scarlet spice combination with which dosas are commonly flavored, but more sophisticated Indian aficionados have a choice of other powders. Thus the "Bangalore ghee masala dosa" ($5.50) deploys a yellowish and somewhat acrid spice combo that crusts the inside of the crepe. Spring dosa ($4.50) enfolds sautéed onions and bell peppers, but lacks potatoes, which comes as a relief after downing so many spuds. Hailing from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, pesarattu (it sounds like a French surgical appliance) utilizes a batter made from mung beans instead of the usual urad dal, and an herbal mixture that leaves the pancake a delicate shade of green. It's best eaten in the traditional style with a side or filling of upma: cream of wheat customized with toasted cashews and fenugreek, the crunchy rhomboid seeds whose Latin name means "Greek hay," known in Hindi as methi.

Stop by and wave hello
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
Stop by and wave hello

A close cousin of upma, porridge-wise, is pongal, named after a mid-winter farmer's holiday that occurs on January 14 every year (most Indian holidays are lunar, and hence float). Pongal ($5) is a boil-up of toasted rice and mung beans, with lots of spices and fresh chiles mixed in at the last moment. Alongside are served cups of yellow split-pea stew and homemade yogurt, making pongal a particularly satisfying meal. Five of us incorporated it into a giant feast one Sunday evening, which also included spice-heaped masala iddly, four kinds of dosas, two utthapams (thicker pancakes with diced veggies in the batter), and the fiery green chile fritters called katt mirchi.—causing my librarian friend to look up and exclaim: "Man, this starchy dinner is as far from Atkins and South Beach as you can get these days. And it's making me incredibly happy."

 
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