I personally am a card-carrying carnivore, but if I had to stop consuming meat for some reason or another, the bounty of vegetarian-friendly food found in Indian cuisine would keep me pretty happy.
A dosa (a thin, crepelike dish made with rice and lentil batter) stuffed with masala-seasoned potatoes, and those little ivory cakes called idli (also made with rice and lentils) make for a satisfying meal. Dhoklas, a snack or side dish item commonly found in the Indian state of Gujarat, can be added to this list.
Dhoklas come in many varieties. The yellow khaman dhokla is the most typical type sold here in metro Atlanta, and they look and feel like your average spongecake. But these spongecakes taste more savory and fermented as opposed to sweet.
Generally, the batter for making dhokla consists of a mixture of rice, dal (lentils) and/or chickpeas soaked in water overnight and then processed into a paste. The paste is left alone to ferment for hours and then oil, salt, baking soda (for sponginess) and a little sugar are mixed into it to form a smooth batter. It is then poured into a flat, shallow dish and steam-cooked for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Dhoklas are then typically cut into small, chunky blocks and topped with garnishes such as cilantro, coconut shavings, poppy mustard seeds and slivers of green chiles. Side condiments of coriander, mint and/or tangy, sweet tamarind chutney are usually served with them for dipping or drizzling all over.
Lucky for us, dhoklas are widely available in metro Atlanta and can be abundantly found around the Indian restaurant corridor in Decatur. Royal Sweets, a catering business that sells Indian snacks and sweets to individuals and restaurants, offers the yellow khaman dhokla by the pound ($5.99, but a lesser amount can be ordered). Owner Anita Desai finishes her family’s dhokla recipe with a little sugar water for added moisture and just a touch of sweetness. Dip the dhokla into Desai’s spicy coriander chutney to experience a myriad of flavors.
Nearby, Gokul Sweets is a larger sweets and snacks outfit offering a drier version of khaman dhokla as an appetizer item ($4.49). The dhokla presentation is not nearly as uniform, as the shop opts to go for a more pulled-out-of-the-pan look and then tops it with dry noodles of sev (fried seasoned snack made with flour).
For something slightly more formal, Thali restaurant in Patel Plaza offers a solid khaman dhokla that contains more pronounced fermented flavor than the sweets shop versions. You can sit down and sample this as part of the restaurant’s multi-course lunch and dinner format ($14.99, all-you-can-eat vegetarian meal), individually as an appetizer ($3.49), or order it to-go by the pound ($5.99).
Even though nothing beats the real thing, the Patel Brothers Indian grocery (in the same plaza as Thali) sells a few frozen types that can be reheated in the microwave. I couldn’t pass up an attractive package of Garvi Gujarat-brand sandwich dhokla ($2.49) made with rice and gram flour containing a spicy, burnt-orange layer of dal mush in the center. And like another packaged variety called khatta dhokla ($2.99, also made with rice and gram flour), they both are white in color and more sour in flavor than khaman dhokla.
Dhoklas may or may not persuade you to go vegetarian, but this filling Gujarati snack is certainly a treat for anybody’s diet.
11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily. 1709 Church St. (in Patel Plaza), Decatur. 678-705-1290, $-$$.
10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily. 1711 Church St., Decatur. 404-296-2696.