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A recipe for adai, and the art of camouflage

A south-Indian staple, adai is a protein-rich, heavy-weight cousin of the more delicate and popular dosa. It is versatile, nutritious, tasty and easy to make

Bengaluru-based writer and editor Mala Kumar made the adais shown in the picture while listening to Carnatic singers Ranjani and Gayatri’s first film song Unavey marundhu (meaning, food is medicine).

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The day my friend couldn’t stop gushing over a chyawanprash sprinkled with flax and sunflower seeds, I blurted out, "So what! I added flax, sunflower and chia seeds to the adai yesterday!”

“Oh, so that’s the reason it tasted like that,” was his diplomatically ambiguous response.

There are some things that one should never blurt out. Like the ingredients in a dish. Who knows if you’re opening up to a chia-hater, or quinoa-lover, or to someone with allergies. What one hears, I believe, can cause a more severe allergy than what one eats.

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Decades ago, as a new bride, I made tiffin for a visiting octogenarian. “Oh adai? Too... umm... gassy for me, dear,” she whispered. “Don’t worry, I have added a generous amount of perungayam (asafoetida) that will take care of your problem,” I said. She relished the rice-and-pulses adais. The day, and the air at home, was saved. Over the years, like millions of home cooks, I’ve customised the humble south-Indian adai to suit ravenous teenagers, diabetic uncles, fastidious aunts, puristic juniors, adventurous seniors, fussy kids, toothless guests and food-lovers like me.

A south-Indian staple, adai is a protein-rich, heavy-weight cousin of the more delicate and popular dosa. Since protein builds bones, muscles and the bank balances of the manufacturers of protein-based foods, the adai must be crowned the queen of healthy dishes - versatile, tasty, nutritious, easy to make, with flexible proportions.. The basic ingredients are raw rice of any kind (I use red rice), toor dal and channa dal. These are soaked for a few hours and ground along with red chillies, asafoetida and salt to make a coarse, thick batter. You can up its nutrition quotient by using any or all the other low-fat, high-fibre, high-protein lentils like masoor, urad, rajma, cowpea, and more, as long as you maintain a rough ratio of one part rice to one part pulses or lentils. Now, its time to camouflage all the other ingredients that one needs to consume, but may not want to see.

There are two kinds of eaters -- those who like to see, know and feel every ingredient that goes into a dish and the other who never want to encounter julienned ginger, grated coconut, or floating curry leaves. With the adai, you can please both groups. Add finely chopped curry leaves, coriander, spinach, onion, ginger and freshly grated coconut to the batter, for the first group. Grind it all with the rice and pulses for the second. Pour a ladle or two of the batter on to a hot tava, and use the ladle to shape it into a thick swirly pancake. We add moringa leaves when available. Sometimes I leave out the modesty and show off my garden’s bounty by also adding edible flowers, micro greens and leafy vegetables.

“Store-bought ones past their expiry date maybe harmful, but you’re eating fresh, organically-grown, and well-cooked micro-greens harvested just now,” I assure sceptics. On the other hand, if someone credits the home-grown greens for the adai’s refreshing taste, I don’t disclose that it only has three leaves of moringa from the balcony, the rest being from the market.

Adai batter isn’t fussy like some dosa batters. It does not have to be fermented. The adai comes clean off the tawa whether you make it thick or thin, with any combination of pulses, with or without greens and coconut. Add a spoon of oil, any oil, around it and into the little hole one makes in the centre, flip it over and cook for another minute, and --adada! -- your golden-hued adai, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, is ready.

The adai can be eaten on its own, but like its composition, its accompaniments too vary. Some people like it with avial, others like it with a chutney. We prefer to have it with dollops of butter and jaggery. I collect milk skin or lactoderm in a bottle. If I sit shaking this bottle vigorously, while simultaneously watching the churn of world events on TV, it means I am extracting the weekly batch of fresh butter to go with the adais for the evening. As a by-product, we also get fresh buttermilk, perfect to wash down the heavy adai.

For some time now, I’ve been adding grated vegetables too, the kind that blend in well. “Is this cabbage in the adai?” asked my cabbage-loving niece recently, making her anti-cabbage cousin almost choke in consternation. Silence, like a well-made adai, is golden.

Recipe for Adai

Makes 10 

Half cup raw red rice ( or any raw rice)
Half cup parboiled rice ( which has more B1,B3, B6 than raw white rice)
Half cup toor dal
Half cup chana dal
One-third cup urad, masoor, and green gram dal (optional)
(These need to be soaked overnight to make adai for breakfast. Soak for 3 hours if making for any other time.)

To be added while grinding
2-3 dry red chillies
1-2 green chillies
1 piece of ginger
Generous pinch of asofoetida
A pinch of turmeric powder
Salt to taste

To be ground along with the batter, or added finely chopped and added to the batter
Half cup grated coconut (optional)
1 sprig chopped coriander leaves (optional)
1 sprig chopped moringa leaves (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves (this is a south-Indian dish, so of course!)
1 onion (optional)

Refined sunflower/groundnut/sesame oil for shallow frying


Rinse, wash and grind the soaked ingredients with a little water to make a coarse batter. Add the greens and onion. It is best, but not essential, to rest the batter for at least half an hour before making the adais.

Heat a tawa. Drizzle a bit of oil on it. Pour a ladle or two of the batter on the hot tawa, use the back of the ladle in a swirling motion starting from the centre to make a nice thick (or thin) adai. Make a hole in the middle with the spatula. Drizzle a little oil around the edges, and in the centre. Cook for a minute, then flip it and cook, take it off with a flourish and transfer to a plate. Best served hot with a spoon of jaggery powder and fresh butter.

Left over batter should be refrigerated to make adai again or to make crisp, sinful, deep-fried fritters called kunukku.

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