You don’t have to have all the proper, culturally specific equipment to make authentic Asian dumplings. For example, I use a Mexican tortilla press as a shortcut to preparing many dumpling wrappers. One late night while watching TV, an infomercial for a cast iron pancake puff pan (round baseball-like pancakes similar to Danish abelskiver/ebelskiver) caught my eye. “That pan is perfect for Indian kuzhi paniyaram, Japanese takoyaki, and Vietnamese banh khot,” I said to myself. The pan’s semi-spherical wells were bout 2 inches wide at the top, so not too big and not too small, versatile enough for many kinds of Asian dumplings. I bought one from Bed Bath and Beyond (one of the “As Seen on TV” pancake puff pans) but later noticed that they’re available online and at shops such as Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, etc.
My friend Shiyam Sundar, a chef from South India, introduced me to these kuzhi paniyaram -- light, crisp dumplings made from a rice and lentil batter studded with spices and aromatics. Shiyam was sous chef at Amber India in San Jose, CA, but was unable to renew his visa and thus forced to return to India last month. I was feeling sad as he very much wanted to remain in America and cook Indian food with fresh California ingredients. Thinking of him, I took out the pancake puff pan and made kuzhi paniyaram.
Instant Batter Mix for this Tiffin
Despite the multisyllabic name of kuzhi paniyaram, the Indian dumplings are not complicated. They feature batter used for idli -- the super popular South Indian rice cakes that are typically steamed as small rounds in a multi-tiered steamer. Some recipes call for using leftover idli batter for kuzhi paniyaram. In that sense, it’s a smart way to repurpose a staple item in South Indian kitchens. Idli batter can be made with wheat or rice but I like the lightness of rice. It requires fermentation so I follow Shiyam’s approach and employ instant rice idli batter mix, sold inexpensively (less than $1) at Indian markets. I keep a stash on hand at home. (India Cash & Carry on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale is where I shop.)
These South Indian dumplings are traditionally a tiffin item that’s enjoyed as a snack or light meal. I most recently prepared them for lunch and my husband and I enjoyed them with plops of coconut cilantro chutney and bowls of sambhar, a tangy spicy lentil and vegetable stew; see the dal dokli recipe Note section for a version of sambhar. But you don’t always have to make a meal out of it. I’ve served the dumplings with the chutney as an appetizer, and snacked on them too.
Indian Rice and Lentil Dumplings with Coconut Cilantro Chutney
This is a great vegan dumpling that vegetarians and non-vegetarians will like. The contrast of textures, delicate flavors, and punchy chutney is delightful. I’ve successfully prepared kuhzi paniyaram with Priya, Gits, and MTR brands of instant idli mix. The measurement for the mix is what normally comes in a small 7-ounce package.
Makes about 21 dumplings
1 cup (a 7-ounce package) instant rice idli mix
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
Generous 1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
Generous 1/4 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1 hot green Thai or Serrano chile, thinly sliced
6 to 8 curry leaves, rinsed, dried and roughly chopped
1 cup Coconut Cilantro Chutney
1. Whisk together the idli mix and water in a measuring cup or bowl. Set aside to thicken and rise.
2. Heat the oil in a small skillet over high heat. When the oil shimmers a bit, add the mustard and cumin seeds. When the spices crackle and pop, lower the heat slightly and add the ginger, onion, chile, and curry leaf. Cook, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds, to remove some of the rawness from the aromatics. Remove from the heat and cool for 1 minute before stirring into the batter. Set the batter aside for 10 minutes to rise.
3. Heat the pancake puff or abelskiver pan over medium-high heat. Add a quarter-size circle of oil to each well. Pour batter into each well so that it comes up just shy of the top edge. Expect the batter to sizzle on contact and bubble at the edge – these are very good signs. Cover with lid and cook for 4 minutes. Uncover, drizzle some oil on top of each dumpling, then use 1 or 2 skewers to loosen each dumpling and flip it over.
It should be crisp and golden brown, with little pock marks. Cook the other side for another 3 minutes, or until cooked through and crisp. Remove from the pan and place the dumplings, rounder and browner side down, on a serving plate.
Discard and straggly bits of batter from the pan before repeating with the remaining batter. Regulate the heat as necessary to ensure a moderately-high heat.
4. Flip over the dumplings so their prettier rounded, browned sides are up. Serve with the coconut cilantro chutney. Invite guests to use their hands to enjoy.
Note: Though best when freshly made, these dumplings can be prepared several hours in advance, covered with parchment paper and kept at room temperature. Reheat them in a 350F oven or toaster oven for about 6 minutes, or until crisp and hot.