There are as many versions of this recipe as there are cooks in India but like any kid, I am rather partial to the way mum made it. I can't honestly recall a dinner party, high tea or birthday celebration when these didn't feature in the menu. Leftovers would develop a delicious tang overnight and were just as prized the next day. Years later, mum's dahi vadas never fail to come up in conversation with all who knew and loved her.
Now, I am not a huge fan of frying and not just for the obvious health reasons. I lack the confidence (there I said it!) and don't particularly care for the clean up after. But if I am to make an exception, it would be for a dish like this.
When it comes to choosing a frying oil, I recommend peanut, coconut or rice bran. These are stable in high heat and just a better alternative. Also, you might find that they don't make the house smell horribly 'fishy' like the cheaper oils tend to do.
For the vadas.. (Makes 15-20)
1 cup ivory lentils or urad dal (source the dal and any unfamiliar ingredient from your local Indian store)
1 small dry red chili
Salt to taste
4 cups whipped yogurt (should be a little thicker than buttermilk. Thin with water to get this consistency)
Tamarind chutney (bottled or frozen or make your own following recipe below).
Some cilantro, chopped
2 cups oil for frying (ugh! I know)
1/2 cup chopped dates
2 Tbsp tamarind extract or concentrate
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
A dash of cayenne
Salt to taste
For the spice mix
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 Tbsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp garam masala
1-2 dry red chili (adjust or skip based on tolerance)
Salt to taste
Wash the dal and soak in two cups of water for 2 hours. Drain and blend with red chili and salt in a food processor until a thick, smooth and spongy batter forms. Use barely any water.
When the dal is soaking, zip the chutney ingredients in a blender with a little water until smooth. The finished product should be fairly thick like ketchup. Adjust seasonings.
Powder the ingredients for the spice mix until quite fine. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a deep-fry pan on high for 5 minutes. Drop dollops of batter (about the size of a truffle) into the oil, taking care not to overcrowd. Reduce the heat to medium and fry until golden. Drain on a cookie sheet layered with paper towels. Continue the process until the batter is used up.
While the vadas are cooking, fill a wide bowl with warm water. Drop the cooked and drained fritters into the water and soak for about 5 minutes or so. Gently squeeze out the water from the fritters and place them in the whisked/thinned yogurt. It is not the end of the world if one or three crack during the squeezing process. The vadas will bloat and drink up the yogurt. Fish them out carefully and arrange on a platter. Dot the dahi vadas with the tamarind chutney. Sprinkle the spice mix and finish with a garnish of chopped cilantro. These are best eaten the same day. They can be made a few hours ahead and refrigerated.