Tiranga Dhokla (Tricolor Savory Sponge Cake)

(jump to recipe)

Every year around January 26th and August 15th, depending on how many Indian people you know and follow, you may have noticed your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds bursting with the Indian tricolor of Saffron, White and Green, or  the “Tiranga” (“Tir” = three, “Ranga” = color). If you are not sure why, it’s because January 26th is India’s Republic Day and August 15th, it’s Independence Day! Flags are hoisted in every institution all over the country, and the tricolor waves proudly throughout the country in the hope of a more secular, open and better tomorrow for my motherland!

And, if you are obsessed with food as I am, you might see elaborate tricolor preparations all over your feed too – tricolor rice, desserts, parathas (flatbreads) and the like. I myself try to make something new each year; this past year I made Tricolor Dosas (rice and lentil crepes), and for 2019, I am applying the “Tricolor” filter to one of the India’s favorite snack, the Dhokla (pronounced Dhow-klaah).

The traditional yellow Dhokla is a steamed sponge cake made with fermented chickpea batter and spiced with turmeric, green chilies and ginger. A different variant of it, called “Khata Dhokla” is made with semolina instead, and is sort of quick-fermented with yogurt and the Eno (a fruit salt easily available everywhere, or baking soda can be substituted too) does the rest of the rising work.

The Khata Dhokla, pale white in color, is much faster to make as it has a short resting/fermenting time. It’s something you can whip up in a few hours for a substantial and relatively healthy tea time snack. And the neutral color lends itself well to my coloring needs, as I’ve dyed this particular stack with carrot and spinach purées to represent the Saffron/Orange and Green of my country’s flag!

We start off by gathering our ingredients!

From the top, L-R: semolina, Eno fruit salt, sugar, chickpea flour, grated ginger and finely chopped green chilies, turmeric, vegetable oil, carrot purée, salt, yogurt, spinach and water.

We’ll first mix the base Dhokla batter (we’ll be coloring it later just before steaming it) by adding all the dry ingredients to a medium bowl (semolina, chickpea flour, salt, sugar, turmeric) and then adding the wet ingredients to it (oil, yogurt and water, little by little) to make a smooth, homogenous batter.

Add yogurt to the mixture of dry ingredients (except the Eno)
Add water and stir well to combine

We will let this rest for 2-3 hours.

Meanwhile, you can cook the 2-3 carrots in boiling, salted water and purée them in a food processor. Also blanch 3 cups of spinach leaves in boiling salted water, and purée them as well. You can add a tablespoon or so of water to help make the purée but limit it to 2 tablespoons, as it can make the batter too thin! You’ll need about 1/4-1/3 cup each (purée).

Once the batter has rested, give it a quick stir and add grated ginger and finely chopped green chilies. Adjust salt level if required.

Divide the batter (a total of about 3 1/2 cups) into 3 parts – 1 cup each for the orange and green layers, and 1 1/2 cup for the white batter (you can leave this in the medium bowl). To the first 1-cup part, add the carrot purée, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, and stir well. Added more purée (unto 1/3 cup) until you get the desired color. Repeat the same with the second 1-cup part and the spinach purée. Adjust salt level again, as adding the purées will bring down the saltiness.

Tricolor batter, still without the Eno

At this point, let me introduce you to my trusty steamer!

Steamer with a small shelf of 3 steamer pans

This is made especially for Dhokla but you can use any steamer tray as long as it is about 1-inch tall. I make Dhokla in this steamer but you can also make it in a pressure cooker (manual or electric) in steam-mode (that is, without the pressure whistle).

Get your pans ready by greasing them with oil or a nonstick cooking spray.

Greasing the pans makes for quick release and easy cleanup

Add 1-2 cups of water to the steamer and set it on medium-high heat, allowing it to come to a light simmer before proceeding to the next step.

It is now time to add the magic maker – Eno! – to the batters individually. As SOON as you mix in the Eno, you must pour the batter to the prepared pans and place them in the hot steamer for cooking. This is why it is important to line everything up before you add the Eno. You can also use the same amount of baking soda if you are unable to find Eno (readily available in Indian/Pakistani grocery stores).

Pour the batters into their respective pans and steam for 12-15 minutes.

Add Eno once the steamer pans are ready and the steamer is hot and ready to go, then transfer colored batters to the prepared pans

Sometimes the layers with the vegetable purées can take up to a minute or two longer. The Dhokla is ready when a knife inserted in the Dhokla comes out almost dry, or with a few wet bits. Another sign of doneness is that the Dhokla will slowly leave the sides of the pan when its ready (especially as its cooling).

Post a quick steam

While the Dhokla is cooling, make the tempering in a small saucepan by bringing a tablespoon of oil to a shimmer. Add mustard seeds, sesame seeds, asafetida and curry leaves and cook on medium heat for a minute or so, until the sesame seeds and curry leaves take on a bit of a color. Take off the heat and set aside.

Tempering ingredients: curry leaves, asafetida (hing), mustard seeds, sesame seeds and vegetable oil

Once the Dhokla cools slightly (about 5-7 minutes) loosen them (sides and bottoms) with a thin spatula or a knife. Gently flip them onto a serving platter, starting with the green layer at the bottom, the white layer at the center and the orange layer on top.

Stacked layers of Dhokla in the Tiranga order

Drizzle the tempering on top. Garnish the top of the stack with chopped cilantro and Sev (fried chickpea flour noodles).

Adding tempering and chopped cilantro
Cut into wedges

Serve, cut into wedges, with Cilantro+Mint Chutney or Tamarind-Date Chutney, according to your preference! Both these and many other Chutneys (dips) are readily available in Indian grocery stores and are great to keep on hand for quick snacking needs!

Warm and smelling delicious!

This is an unusual way of serving Dhokla (as a stacked cake). Traditionally Dhokla is served by cutting into into squares or diamonds while still in the pan and the tempering is drizzled on top. We intend to cut it like a cake, to see the Tirange (tricolor) like the Indian flag!

Standing tall, along side date-tamarind chutney
Perfect with some hot chai on a cold day

• Recipe •

Tiranga Dhokla (Tricolor Savory Sponge Cake)
Serves 8-12 as a snack

For the Dhokla (sponge cake)
1 1/2 cup dry semolina
1 tablespoon chickpea or garbanzo bean flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoon, or to taste, table salt
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 cup thick yogurt
1 1/4 cup water
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into big chunks
3 cups spinach leaves (tough stems removed)
1 inch block of ginger peeled, grated
3-4 green chilies, finely chopped
4 1/2 teaspoons Eno (fruit salt) or baking soda

For the tempering (Tadka or Fodni or Chhaunk)
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon white sesame seeds
7-8 whole curry leaves
1/4 teaspoon asafetida (“Hing”)

To garnish
1-2 tablespoons Chopped Cilantro

To serve
Cilantro and Mint (Green) Chutney (store-bought)
Tamarind Date Chutney (store-bought) (optional)
Sev (ultra-thin fried chickpea flour noodles, store-brought) (optional)

Make Dhokla Batter
In a medium bowl, combine all the dry ingredients (semolina, chickpea flour, sugar, turmeric and salt) and mix well.

Add the oil and yogurt to the dry ingredients, and mix the better while streaming in the water, 1/4 cup at a time, until batter is uniformly mixed and no lumps remain. Adjust salt level, if required.

Cover the bowl with a plate or lid and let the batter rest for 2-3 hours on the kitchen counter at room temperature.

Make coloring purées
While the batter is resting, cook the carrots until fork tender in boiling, salted water and drain immediately. Purée in a food processor to a smooth consistency, adding 1-2 tablespoons of water if required, to move things along. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Blanch the spinach leaves for about 1 minute in boiling, salted water and drain immediately. Purée in a food processor to a smooth consistency, adding 1-2 teaspoons of water, if required. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Make tricolor batters
Once the batter has rested, give it a quick stir, then add grated ginger and finely chopped chilies. Mix well. The base batter is now ready.

This batter in terms of volume is about 3 1/2 cups (give or take a few tablespoons depending on how thick your yogurt was). Divide the batter into roughly three parts: Part 1, for the orange layers should be 1 cup, Part 2, for the green layer, should be 1 cup, and the remaining 1 1/4-1 1/2 cup will remain the white base batter.

In Part 1 of the batter (1 cup), add carrot purée, couple tablespoons at a time and mix well, until you get the desired orange color.

In Part 2 of the batter (1 cup), add the spinach purée, couple tablespoons at a time and mix well, until you get the desired green color.

Steam Dhokla
Add 3/4 cup water to a steamer or pressure cooker and place on medium-high heat with the lid on to bring the water to a low simmer. Lightly grease the Dhokla steamer pans with oil or nonstick cooking spray.

Add 1 1/2 teaspoon of Eno or baking soda to each of the 3 batters (4 1/2 teaspoons total) and mix quickly.

Immediately, pour 3 batters into 3 lightly greased Dhokla trays and place in the stand. Set stand in the steamer or pressure cooker (without the pressure whistle) and steam, without pressure, for 13-15 minutes on medium-high heat, or until the cakes are cooked through and a thin knife inserted into the cake comes clean.

Take the stand out of the steamer or pressure cooker and let cool slightly.

Make tempering
In a small saucepan, heat the oil. Once oil is shimmering, at mustard seeds. Once they start to pop and sputter, add the sesame seeds, asafetida and curry leaves, and swirl contents around in the pan to cook evenly, for about a minute. Once the curry leaves and sesame seeds take on a color, take off the heat.

Using a thin spatula or knife, loosen the sides and bottoms of the steamed Dhokla from the pans and gently flip the cakes on to a serving platter in the following order: green at the bottom, white in the middle and orange on top. Arrange to align perfectly, like a stacked cake.

Pour the tempering carefully and evenly over the stacked Dhokla layers and sprinkle the top layer with chopped cilantro leaves and Sev, if desired.

To serve, cut into wedges (like you would cut a cake) and enjoy warm with a cup of tea, and green/tamarind-date chutneys.


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