Words: Emily Mullen
Photography: George Voronov
Signature Dish is one of the first food features on CHAR. If you’re unacquainted, we would like to welcome you with open and slightly grease-covered arms. With Signature Dish we focus on the overlooked darlings of eateries all over Ireland. All too often, chefs create culinary masterpieces that are passed over in favour of more recognisable dishes on their menus. No longer. We want to celebrate these unsung heroes and give you a new reason to pop in to our favourite restaurants. This week it’s Dosa Dosa‘s Masala Dosa.
After months of touring around carparks and concrete expanses around Dublin, Dosa Dosa’s Volkswagen has found a resting place in a repurposed carpark beside Becky Morgan’s pub. Deep into the afternoon, customers are still ambling up in twos and threes hopefully peering inside the interior of the black van. By the time we arrived, the dosas are all but gone, their extensive menu has been reduced down to two dosas, egg and masala (which luckily for us is the one we are there to try). Customers take the news calmly and are happy to take whatever dosas are left. Despite closing time approaching, and the sun continuously blasting off the van all day, the Dosa Dosa team are happy to sling them out until all the dosas are completely gone.
Something chef and owner Karthik Thiru would say himself, that the odds were stacked against Dosa Dosa when they opened their food truck last February, just three weeks before the lockdown. Starting the company with no commercial cooking or business experience to his name. That wasn’t the only challenge facing the business, with the Indian-born Thiru pointing to the fact he also started his first business in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Odds, lockdowns and location issues aside, the food truck has quietly made waves across the city introducing the hungry city slickers to the wonders of this two-thousand-year-old Indian staple. Dosa Dosa is now set to grow exponentially, with two new containers in the process of being kitted out, Thiru is set to triple his production capabilities over the coming months.
Thiru works incredibly hard, so much so when you meet him it’s hard to believe he is still standing up. A believer in the Silicon Valley-tinged startup school of thought, which sees founders working to the point of collapse. Thiru certainly practices what he quotes, working throughout the week in a senior tech role, as he finishes work on Friday sets into preparing for the weekend, before working through the entire weekend, often with a handful of hours of sleep. When we met up with Thiru he was on the brink of quitting his day job and perusing Dosa Dosa full time.
Looking into the van, it’s tight. There are three people cooking, packing and handling orders in a space that’s 7x3ft. The time pressures are extreme since dosas are made right in front of customers and need to be handed over without delay. Further challenges come the lack of running water, with no gas or electricity supply, the van is literally plonked there on the weekends and is turned over to a carpark during the rest of the week, meaning that the van has to continually run in order to keep the fridge cold, meanwhile the grill is powered using gas canisters and everything else using rechargeable batteries. Which Thiru spends hours charging at home and then lugs back into the van each day. The team also have a food preparation facility in Ballycullen where they prepare massive portions for each day of trading before journeying across the Liffey to Grand Canal Street Lower.
The smell of the dosa batter hits you when you step anywhere near the van. The fragrant ferment tang comes from the rice, lentils and fenugreek seed, which has been soaked, ground and fermented over several hours. It’s that smell that Thiru looks for when he knows the batter is done. He applies the same approach to his masala, capable of eyeballing the ingredients during the mass preparations Thiru does in his facility in Ballycullen. With a deft hand, Thiru swirls the batter around into a rough circle onto a lightly oiled flat top grill. The temperature of the grill is extremely important, too hot it burns not enough it becomes soggy. A splash of ghee is added to the top of the batter, which creates bubbles and speeds up the cooking. The masala is then added to the centre of the cooking dosa, then its folded up on either side. End to end the process of making the dosa takes about a minute.
I really missed my food, my food from home. I tried a few Indian restaurants here, which are good but they go with a westernised taste, whatever is selling for them they just make itKarthik Thiru – chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
The dosa is the ultimate comfort food, moreish to the extreme. The satisfaction that you feel after eating one makes it difficult to believe that it constantly tops the healthiest food charts. The dosas are crispy on the outside and soft and doughy within. There’s a tang to the dosa that belies the processes of the batter. The potatoes are a cross between a smash and a mash, they give the dosa a lovely counterbalance of texture, the same feeling that you get when you bite into a toasted sandwich and hit a layer of melted cheese. They are nicely spiced and dyed yellow with turmeric. Destined to be dunked into warm sambar (a lentil soup), alongside a mint and coconut chutney.
Once you have a masala dosa from Dosa Dosa, a niggle lodges into your brain lies dormant there and makes you think of having another at strange times. It’s like a deja vu when it occurs to you at strange times “did I have that or did I make it up?”. Forget about curry, it would be hard to find any Indian dish, that’s better suited to Irish bellies than the dosa.
How did you start Dosa Dosa?
I’m from a Southern part of India, a town called Thanjavur in a state called Tamil Nadu. Thanjavur is one of the ancient towns, it’s one of the oldest towns in India which is still alive. A lot of Indian food styles especially Chettinad originated in that particular region. There’s no one Indian cuisine, there’s a lot of different parts, and one of those is Chettinad. I love food you know, every day I was cooking food for my Mom, I learnt to cook from her. When I studied for my masters in University of Limerick in 2010-2011, I really missed my food, my food from home. I tried a few Indian restaurants here, which are good but they go with a westernised taste, whatever is selling for them they just make it. I was thinking about the first few years, while I was working [in IT] paying back my loans, I got married, but I was thinking about setting up a startup, especially something to do with food. Then I was thinking about running a restaurant, a takeaway or a cafe but I was still confused, I was worried about running a business like that and being able to pay my mortgage and my bills, run a family, especially when Dublin is one of the most expensive cities, you need money to live. Then finally I became confident that financially I would be able to start something, then I bought this Volkswagen in September 2019, which I converted into a kitchen.
Did you convert the Volkswagen van yourself?
I gave it to a company to convert but I did all the design myself, everything. My van, my branding, my logo which was inspired by an Indian temple, everything. It took about two to three months to convert, then I started my first run in February 2020.
You did start Dosa Dosa at a pretty challenging time?
Within three weeks Covid came, and it was full lockdown. It was really stressful, with all the food in and then not being able to sell anything. I waited a couple of months, then I began looking for places to park, then we finally got a place in Lucan [off the Newcastle Road], once the level four lockdown was lifted around the last week in May 2020 I started again. After three to four months the location in Lucan started their doing their own food so they kicked us out. It was really hard to find another place, so every weekend for the rest of the year we ran in a different location. We took a break in December and January, and I decided that I had to get a permanent place after that because I was so tired. It was so hard to get the message across to our customers each week where we were, there was a lot of challenges in terms of trying to get power, parking for customers, problems with neighbours, there were a lot of challenges. I thought that it was too much, once we had a good place we would be able to do it. Then we found this place and we rent it from Saturday and Sunday, during the week it’s normally full up with private parking. We started here the second week of February since then we’ve done it every weekend.
How did it feel starting three weeks before the pandemic?
It was really bad but I still have hope that the pandemic is not going to be the end of the world. I’m not a negative person, I just try to push on and face it. It’s not only my problem or Dosa Dosas problem, the problem is hitting the whole world. It’s not only me, I’m nothing in front of this.
I see from social media that you are constantly selling out?
We are getting popular, particularly with younger crowds and a lot of Irish people love it too.
Does it surprise you how Irish people are taking to it?
They really love it, they will patiently wait like 40 minutes for a dosa. If people are willing to wait in a queue they must like it. It’s food that has to be cooked hot, you have to do it fresh in front of people.
It’s hard to hire someone to make this kind of food, you wouldn’t get the authentic taste, and they’ll mess up… I take all the ownership and all the pressure to hold it, if I give it to somebody else I could run but not like the way I’m running now.Karthik Thiru – chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
How much prep are you able to do ahead of time?
We do a lot in terms of preparation, we do a lot of early morning prep in our kitchen in Ballycullen. Today for example I finished working last night at 1am and I started doing preparation at 5am. So I hardly sleep three hours.
You are still working full time in IT during the week, right?
I’m still working as a digital developer, for a financial service company. So this is my weekend, but it’s not a typical weekend it’s not very relaxing. I do my tech work Monday-Friday 9-5, then I start my food work at 5:30pm and finish at around 1am. I park my van, clean up everything, go for a sleep maybe at 2am then start again.
That’s some work ethic
That’s my life for the last year or two. We used to start Dosa Dosa at 2pm in the day last year, now we start at 1pm, so there’s less sleeping time.
This is making me tired just thinking about your schedule.
I do Friday, Saturday, Sunday three peoples jobs. I’m really tired, my body used to be tired because I hardly have time to get a cup of tea or a drink of water when I’m working. It’s too much work, I’m so busy. It’s hard to hire someone to make this kind of food, you wouldn’t get the authentic taste, and they’ll mess up. I tried it if you look at my reviews. I take all the ownership and all the pressure to hold it, if I give it to somebody else I could run but not like the way I’m running now. I’m going to do this full time soon, I’m going to resign and take a big risk. I have a really good job at the moment I’m one of the senior people there, it’s well paid, one month holiday, insurance, pension, sick leave everything, it’s a fucking proper job.
But this is what you love!
Yeah, in life you need risk. If you want to get something you need to lose something. I don’t have a choice, that’s what Elon Musk says if you want to get something you need to work at it, you might work for 18 hours, sleep for five hours, you might lose your wife or your girlfriend, you might lose your health but you are still working on your dream. Yesterday I left here at 9:30pm because I couldn’t stop the people, even when it’s closed people keep coming.
Has it taken you a lot to get to this point?
I’m completely new in this world, I had never worked in a kitchen before this. After I started this business I went to a commercial kitchen to learn, how to make food commercially. Before I never had any kind of commercial food experience.
While I’m okay in my job, but this is my passion to be honest, that job makes me money and pays my mortgage but this is my passion.Karthik Thiru – chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
Really, you just cooked at home before Dosa Dosa?
I cooked at home, cooked at friends BBQs and stuff but that’s it. I learned from my Mom, and one of my friends is a South Indian chef, I used to share a house with him when I was a student so I got a lot of information from him. Another one of my friends runs a food truck, which was a big inspiration for me. While I’m okay in my job, but this is my passion to be honest, that job makes me money and pays my mortgage but this is my passion. I’m doing my best in my job, I’m still there but this is my passion. Everybody has a passion, but then you end up in a job because you need to pay your bills, running a family and all that stuff. At a certain point, you need to move on, and for me, I think this is the time to move on. What’s the big deal? Maximum, you lose money and you can just get another job.
When are you planning on resigning?
As soon as I get my container here. This space has been empty for 20 years, there’s no power, no water, no drainage, nothing. It’s taking a lot of time to get everything, so there’s a bit of a delay. At the moment I’m running everything in the back from batteries, the fridge is being run through the diesel of the van and I’m also using gas canisters, so it’s challenging.
Are your recipes from your family?
They are my Mom’s, my chef friends and some of them I created myself. Nobody finds their own recipes, you figure out what works and what doesn’t, then you keep on doing it.
Is it important for you to create South Indian food?
It is proper authentic, I don’t cook Indian food, I cook South Indian food. 99% of the Indian food is North Indian, they hardly put one dish that’s from the South, maybe a Chettinad chicken but that’s the only dish. The rest is all North Indian stuff.
Why is there such an emphasis on North Indian cuisine here?
To be honest, most South Indian people work in IT or finance, they are doctors, that kind of stuff. The three guys that work with me are all South Indian and they work in IT. When they have jobs like that they don’t want to take a risk.
It is proper authentic, I don’t cook Indian food, I cook South Indian food.Karthik Thiru – chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
What was it about the dosa that made you want to specialise in it?
A couple of people were doing it in Ireland, but they were all North Indian people, no one from the South was doing it. 90% of our menu is focused on dosa, but we do the parottas [flatbread] as well. Dosa is one of the top foods in India, on Google the highest searchable food in India is the masala dosa. Anybody can eat a dosa, a ten-month-old baby to someone who is 99 years of age, it’s gluten-free, vegan, healthy, fresh you can eat it with almost any health condition. It’s so close to our hearts. Dosas you normally have them at breakfast, every house has them at breakfast and dinner as well. Everyone has the batter in their homes, its the same way that you guys would have bread, I’ve never eaten bread in my life, maybe once or twice, until I came here. Dosas are our bread.
How do you make the batter?
The process to make a dosa is a long one, the batter that we use, we soak the rice, lentils and fenugreek seed for about four hours. Then we grind it, leave it for another six to eight hours so it naturally fermentates to grow the natural bacterias, then you get the aroma in the batter then it’s ready to make the dosas.
The masala dosa is the highest-selling dosa?
We have a lot of toppings like the vegetarian one the masala dosa the classic one, the best it’s the highest-selling too. Which is my favourite.
How do you make the masala?
You make the chaat masala [spice mix] first, by boiling the masala, boiling potato, draining it, removing the skins and smashing it, we season with oils, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, green chilis, raw ginger, we finely chop deep fry in the oil, finally, we put the turmeric powder, mix it, put it back on the potato and then we smash it all up. That gives it the aroma, the flavours, the colours everything. Once you make up the dosa, garnish it with a little ghee, top with sambar lentil soup, fresh coconut, and mint chutney. Sambar is key, its a key element, it will take me the longest to make as well. When you have the dosa you need to properly dip it into the sambar at the end, that’s how you are supposed to eat it.
Do you follow recipes?
I used to have it written down but now I just do it by eye. We just keep tasting to maintain the quality.
What is the spice level like in your food?
People say that it’s not too spicy, it’s a medium-mild, we try to have it cover all people. But if someone wants it spicier we can do that for them. So far nobody has complained that it’s too spicy, even Irish people they all love it.
I picked a food truck before the pandemic and after the pandemic I am sticking with it.Karthik Thiru – chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
Did you choose the size of the dosa deliberately?
Once I have a bigger place I can make bigger dosa, but at the moment ours has to be hand-sized to make them user friendly. If you give customers large dosas they won’t be able to deal with it, they wouldn’t be able to hold it. But when we do have a bigger place we do plan on making the bigger special dosas.
I’ve seen on your Instagram that there is a community element to your food?
A lot of people are coming and gathering here, people are coming as far as Limerick, Cork, Galway. There’s a lot of returning customers, it’s about 60/40% returning customers to new customers.
Do many of your customers wonder why you aren’t open during the week?
Yeah a lot of them do, I know it’s getting busier but I can’t suddenly open a place, I can’t do that because this is not the right time. Outdoor catering is popular, there’s a container a food truck everywhere. I picked a food truck before the pandemic and after the pandemic, I am stuck with it.
But you do dream of having a restaurant?
Of course, definitely. Another plan is to do a Boojum style concept, to do an Indian style fast food place, that’s my plan. I don’t think you can get faster food than Indian food like you order and it’s prepared in front of you.
Does it ever get very busy and packed in the truck?
Always, it’s just 7×3 feet, a lot of the preparation, service, preparation, packaging all happens in here. On the other side there is a fridge and freezer. We have a proper facility in Ballycullen for a lot of the early morning and evening preparation because you can’t do it here. We prepare 20kilo of chicken, 20kilo of potatoes, 50 litres of sambar, and 40 litres of chutneys.
I’ve put all my savings, my credit card, I’m not making any big money. I’m not doing it to make money, I’m doing it to make my life.Karthik Thiru – Chef and owner of Dosa Dosa
Are you having to constantly increase those ratios because of demand?
Of course, we are probably at maximum capacity now. The container will be double the capacity, right now we can make three dosa at a time, in the container we will be able to make six dosa, so everything will be doubled. In the container we will have a full kitchen, so even if we run out of something we will be able to make it on site.
What’s your plan for Dosa Dosa in the future?
We are planning to do two containers and one food truck. We’ve already bought the two containers, one is almost finished and that’s going to be installed during the summer. This food truck will hopefully be going to a market, and the second container will hopefully be finished by the end of the Summer. Then next year when everyone has gone back to work and normal life resumes, we will hopefully be doing the Boojum style concept. I don’t want to be an amateur, I want to prepare myself to learn everything that’s why I picked the food truck, I don’t have money, I’ve put all my savings, my credit card, I’m not making any big money. I’m not doing it to make money, I’m doing it to make my life. So I have to be very careful the way I take my risks. There’s been a lot of failures and I’ve lost money but you don’t know yourself how to do things. You have to experiment with everything, like no one in my family has ever run any kind of business, my father was a coconut farmer, we are a big farming family there’s very little business in my background. I had to learn everything, and I’m not even in India I’m doing it in one of the most expensive western countries too. But I’m so happy that it’s going well and I’m learning a lot, I’m 34 right I’ve probably learnt the most of it in the past two years.
You can find Dosa Dosa at 10 Albert Court East, Grand Canal Street Lower, Dublin 2, follow them on Instagram for more information.
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