The Adventure of the Amazing Masala Dosa

This is a review, albeit a long meandering one in which I share my thoughts on the dosa scene in Hyderabad, of Maharaja Tiffins & Chat, which is at Haridas Market in Abids.

Short Review

Brilliant food at an amazingly low cost. They do a few things well, and they stick to those few things. Highly recommended are the masala dosa and the pani puri at twenty and ten rupees respectively.

Longer Review

When you grow up in Tamil Nadu, it’s easy to become very choosy about the quality of dosas you eat. This I did, mercilessly flaying this dosa for being too brown and that one for being too white – a sort of dosa Nazism we proudly inherited from generations of dosa-chomping connoisseurs. It had to be just right – not too white, not too brown, neither too crisp nor too soft, not too thin, not too thick. Unfermented dosa batter – that which hadn’t ‘gone sour’ could never be used, and if anyone did use it for making dosas, they could be sure of being cursed roundly for their stupidity and ineptitude.

Among this tribe of dosa-mad people, I was ultra dosa-fied. I loved them so much I could live on them exclusively. So naturally I’ve been sentenced to live in the one land where there is absolutely no one who gets a dosa right.

Hyderabad is a lovely place, with more types of biryani than there are stars in the heavens, and each of them more delicious than the other. However, the Hyderabadi attitude towards dosas is quite frankly disturbingly casual. The Hyderabadi dosa is never right – it’s either too scorched or too undercooked, too thick or too crisp. It’s as if no Hyderabadi cook has eaten a real dosa, and they’re like the blind men with the elephant – each of them screws it up in their own special way. And horror of horrors, the idea of fermenting dosa batter is treated as an optional luxury. There cannot be another place in South India that manages to so regularly and so badly mangle a staple from one of its neighbors – even Bangalore with its hordes of cooks who go around with buckets of jaggery and sugar, desecrating every drop off sambar they can find manages to have an MTR and a Komala Vilas. In terms of dosas, the Hyderabadi culinary landscape is akin to rainfall in the Atacama desert – there is no recorded history of it.

When stranded in such a place, there is no choice but to explore alternative options. And after exhausting all the alternatives, one must come to the horrifying but inevitable conclusion that perhaps one’s standard of defining a dosa is a tad too high, and maybe one should unclench a bit and stop having such strict parameters to define something as universal as a dosa. This I did eventually, and am now Hyderabadi enough to refer to the discoid execrations served up here as dosas.

This rambling introduction is just to give you an idea of the messed up universe in which finding a place like Maharaja Tiffins & Chat is like, to quote George, finding plutonium by accident. I found it quite serendipitously last week, when I was walking around trying to find Tokyo Japan. I know that you have by now given me up as a hopeless mad fellow who’s finally lost it – instead of taking a flight to Narita, this fellow is trying to walk to the erstwhile Edo, you are thinking. Usually you may be right, but in this case, the Tokyo Japan in question happens to be a photography shop that every human and monkey with a camera in Hyderabad knows. So, getting back to the story, I was walking around, trying to find this place, when I realized it was time for a snack. My stomach was gently reminding me of it by rumbling, causing a poor cart-horse that was minding its own business peacefully to bolt. Deciding to put aside my quest for the photographic El Dorado that is Tokyo Japan to save the good and kindly citizens of Abids from further damage from my rumbling belly, I looked around for an eatery. Fortune must have mistaken me for someone else, for instead of flipping me the bird like it usually does, it smiled upon me, showing me the brightly-lit oasis that was Maharaja Tiffins & Chat.

At first glance, Maharaja Tiffins & Chat is nothing much to look at. Even after a few glances, it firmly refuses to be anything to look at. But that is one of the hallmarks of the best roadside eateries – the more unremarkable they are to look at, the more remarkable they are to eat at. Two things struck me immediately – how crowded the place was, and the fellow behind me, as he bumped into my suddenly-stopped self. Roadside eatery, crowded – I had already made up my mind to eat there when my resolve was strengthened by the aroma of the food, carried upon a sudden whimsical little zephyr.

I walked in – this is a highly perceptual thing – the walking in consisting of getting under the modest awning that turns the area in front of the shop into, well, the inside of the shop. Patrons were crowding the place, sitting in a few plastic stools scattered around, and wolfing down platefuls of steaming hot dosas. Emboldened by this sight, and spurred on by my threatening-to-rumble stomach, I gestured at the maitre d’, who was instantly recognizable by his strategic position between the cook and the cash box, shouting out orders on the one side and filling up the cash box on the other. He glanced at me briefly, and in the 42 nanoseconds that he took to do that, he got that I was hungry, and the best way to satisfy that was to yell at the cook, “Ek aur masala dosa.” He had yelled that even before I had gestured and said “One masala dosa” at him. If he’d been in the Wild West, he would have been the fastest gun in the North, South, East and West.

After looking in vain for an empty stool under the awning, I ventured inside the actual shop, located an empty stool and sat, waiting for my order. Within a few minutes, my dosa arrived, sizzling away on a paper plate, and with a ladleful of chutney for company.

The masala dosa was made perfectly – the dosa was crunchy without being too crisp and it wasn’t drowning in butter (Govind Bandi and others of its ilk get away with mediocre fare by adding bucketfuls of butter to their food – good fun once in your lifetime, cardiac roulette from the second time on). The masala itself was really unique, at least to me – it had no perceptible mass, and was more like a paste.There was the crunch of chopped onions and a sharp spicy taste from red chilli powder.Additional notes from a variety of spices also came through – from a dry powder source. All this mystery was resolved when I watched the guy make one.

He started off spreading the batter on the griddle. after it had cooked for a bit, he slathered on a yellow paste out of a steel bucket – this was the masala, so different from all the ones I’ve eaten in the past. Spice was added by an angry red liquid splashed on to it from an adjoining steel bucket.Two large shakers – one with gunpowder and another with a spice mix – were liberally shaken over the mixture. A handful of chopped onions on top completed the assemblage. He merrily went at this mixture with the spatula till it was well and truly blended and spread evenly on the top of the dosa. The result was a perfectly made masala dosa, though no one from my previous life in Tamil Nadu would dare call it that.

The Dosa Maker

This dosa experience was so good that the next time I was in the area a week later, I made a beeline for the place. I was wiser this time, ordering my masala dosa with a jerk of my head and an upraised index finger. Being slightly hungrier than before, I followed up the delicious masala dosa with a plate of pani puri.It was excellent – properly spiced pani and a channa filling (again, a Hyderabadi atrocity, replacing the mashed potatofilling with soft-boiled channa, but this is one transgression I am willing to overlook, though I am sure there are hungry hordes of pani-puri-afficionados from wherever it is that pani puri is a daily staplewho would violently disagree and write long meandering blog posts about it like this one) that complemented it perfectly. Fresh, crisp puris completed the experience, and at the end of it, I was well-satiated.

The Pani Puri Fellow

The kicker of this whole experience was when I was walking out of the place the second time I was there – backing up a bit to get a picture of the place, I noticed that the big permanent signboard affixed above the shop read “Maharaja Electronics”. I looked around and realized the genius of it all. Here was a guy running an electronics shop in the midst of a couple of hundred other electronics shops – obviously business must have been really competitive. It must have been the best day of his life when he decided to convert his electronics store into an eatery. Now, in a sea of electronics stores, Maharaja Tiffins and Chat stand as a lone beacon, beckoning to hungry electronics shoppers.While most of the stores have to deal with their share of window shoppers, Maharaja is the only place where everyone stops to buy something. No wonder the cash register keeps ringing.

Maharaja Tiffins & Chat

In summary, if you’re in the area and are looking for a quick eat, definitely consider Maharaja Tiffins and Chat – you won’t be disappointed!

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