a dramatic yet essential Indian bread
This ‘learning-to-make-roti’ is similar to a rite-of-passage ritual in India, when every parent who cooks teaches their child the fine art of making a roti, at least a handful of times during their childhood. Of all my attempts at making roti, my earliest experiments were obviously most memorable. I remember making tiny little fluffy things no bigger than the size of a Cheese-It for the birds and inadvertently setting all my wooden play-things on fire! What a glorious start to my love of cooking!!
I was raised to believe that the skill of a traditional Indian homemaker was long known by her ability to make perfectly circular roti’s that fluffed up to a perfect soccer ball on an open flame, but ones that were tender enough that the top and bottom could be separated by the flick of the wrist.
Now, this is also my mother’s ideal world and I was trained by her in my youth to meet these standards. My knuckles were frequently rapped if there was a misstep. I was dumbfounded when a classmate (who never cooked), bragged unrelentingly how he had wowed his camp-group by making the perfect roti’s. Upon careful digging, I discovered, he had used a circular lid as a template to trim his roti’s into perfect circles. Was that brilliant or what?! And shame on me, I thought. Despite my mom’s best and well-meaning efforts to teach me the correct way to roll a roti, it took me years of daily practice to replicate hers. One day I simply stopped trying, and presto, I got it!
My Zen moment with making roti’s came when I distilled the results of the hundreds of excruciating minutes of being hunched over a ball of dough that simply would not do what I expected of it and the pressure and expectation of perfection. I learned that the following things affect the final product: everything. For starters, most definitely, what kind of rolling pin one has and the cooking surface. Then one has to worry about the following: the brand of the dry flour, how much wheat germ it has, softness of the dough, the amount of oil used when binding it, the pressure applied to each roll, how often an uncooked roti is dredged in dry flour, how thick the edges are versus the center, if there are holes or folds in the dough, how hot the pan is when starting to cook each roti, how long and how hot each side is cooked, how often it is flipped over, how quickly it is slathered in ghee and how quickly it is eaten. Phew.
I also learned that my clever and cheeky friends’ trick to trim the dough does not make a perfect roti. Trimming the dough after it has been rolled, creates a sharp edge that crisps easily when cooked! What a long list of things that can go wrong and provide a nightmarish proposition for a nervous Nellie!
All these variables do not mean that perfect roti’s or paratha’s are unachievable. It simply means practice and patience will go farther than all these caveats combined.
Here are some things to remember about making a roti. After skimming through these, you will be encouraged and confident of your attempts at making a roti.
Roti, Paratha & Other Breads:
Indian food shows off many varieties of breads - roti, paratha, naan and others, distinctly different from each other, starting from the flour used to make the dough, how the dough is made, rolled or cooked.
Roti: is typically made with unleavenned dough made from whole wheat flour, cooked on the griddle or directly on an open flame, and ghee is applied after it is removed from the flame. This allows one to control how much, if any, ghee is applied to the roti. A few different types of roti's include chapati: a simple roti cooked completely over the griddle, 'fulka' - where it is cooked on the flame half way through the process, and it puffs up like a ball, tandoori roti: typically made in a clay oven, rumali roti: made with white flour and several others. For a novice cook, chapati is the best place to start. Fulka is most popular in my home.
Paratha: is also unleavenned dough made from whole wheat flour, but is griddle fried - meaning the oil or ghee is applied as each paratha is being cooked on the griddle. These are never cooked directly over an open flame, and there are different kinds of paratha's based on how the dough is treated. Folded paratha's, pleated or rolled paratha's employ different techniques of creating a finished dough diskette before it is cooked. Stuffed paratha's use flavored or seasoned dough flavored paratha's with a stuffing created with a variety of ingredients to create stand-alone breads.
Bhakri: is a rustic version of Paratha, made with different kinds of flour. For instance, bhakri can be made with with different kinds of flour such as flour made from corn kernels, rice flour, buckwheat, millets and more. They are more delicate to create and must be consumed immediately.
Naan: made from leavenned white flour, naan is a popular addition to western bake shops and kitchens. The dough is leavenned using baking soda, baking powder, yeast, yogurt or a combination of all these, and cooked in a very hot tandoor oven - a method replicated easily with a pizza stone and the 'broil' setting in a residential oven. Use any naan recipe to experiment.
Ghaawan: is a version of an unleavenned crepe or pancake and can be made with whole wheat flour.
Thepla: traditional western Indian travel breads, these are made with whole wheat flour, fresh leafy vegetables and spices, and are typically cooked like a paratha with oil instead of ghee to help keep them longer. They serve as stand-alone meals and are frequently paired with yogurt, preserves or even spice powders.
Dosa's and more: although not made with wheat flour, dosa's and other similar griddle fried batter based preparations serve as bread in nearly all of southern India. The varieties and preparation methods are endless, I will share these over time.
Flour for Roti & Paratha:
Most grocery stores carry whole wheat flour in the bread isle. This flour is good for making baked breads but is not good for Indian griddle-fried or flame-cooked flat-breads, because it does not contain all parts of the wheat kernel. Flour used for making Indian roti has a coarser texture and is the color of oatmeal as compared to whole wheat flour for baked breads which is lighter in color and has a smooth in texture. Any Asian market will carry a selection of roti flour or atta. Check packaging dates and storing conditions, because atta is an easy target for food weevils.
Tools for Roti & Paratha:
Rolling Pins: Rolling pins used for making roti’s and paratha's are tapered at both ends, similar to a French tapered rolling pin. In using these, the rolling action allows the dough to be thinner in the center and just marginally thicker towards the edges. This allows the roti’s to fluff up during cooking. A pastry rolling pin or roller-style rolling pin is not ideal for making roti.
A flat raised surface: Choose a raised wooden or marble chopping board if you are unable to find a traditional rolling surface. The only advantage to the traditional rolling surface is its circular shape – that serves as a visual guide to rolling the dough into a circular shape. A raised surface allows ease of rolling. Dry the surface thoroughly before use to help the roti move easier during the rolling process.
Recipe: Paratha (Griddle fried Roti)
Makes: 8, 2-piece servings
Diet: Vegetarian, Vegan-adaptable
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
3 cups stone-ground durum whole wheat flour plus extra for dredging
2/3 cup or more water for binding
Salt to taste
2 tsp. cooking oil
1/8 cup clarified butter (or regular butter, do not use oil for basting the finished roti)
Combine the flour with salt and enough water in a food processor fitted with an “S” blade or in a large bowl to make dough. This dough should be firm but not hard, moist but not wet, and similar in consistency to Play-Doh. Carefully knead in 1/2 tsp cooking oil to the dough and cover with a clear wrap or lid until ready to roll. Dough can be made ahead up to 1 day and stored in a refrigerator in an air tight, sealed steel container. If the dough starts turning a pale sage color, it is too old to be used, so plan to have as little time between the dough preparation and the roti preparation as possible.
Divide the dough into golf ball-size pieces of dough. Using the palm of your hand, roll each piece into a smooth ball and lightly flatten to make 1-inch diskettes. Keep these covered to avoid drying.
As you begin, dredge only the diskette you are going to roll in the dry flour. Using a tapered rolling pin, gently roll out the dough using the pressure of your hands to make it move slightly and spin/rotate. Using light pressure on the pin and moving the rolling pin along a small circular path as you roll back and forth will help the dough spin. Roll outwards but not over the edge. This might take a few tries to figure out, but it is easy to do. Dredge/dust with dry flour as needed to avoid stickiness. Lightly dust off the finished uncooked paratha.
It will take a few dozen roti’s to get the rolling action right, so do not give up if the first dozen look more like maps rather than circular disks.
Heat a shallow nonstick pan on medium-high heat. When ready to place the paratha in the pan, turn it down to medium heat. This is the first flip. Watch the dough bubble slightly and move it around in the pan without flipping it over. This allows all surfaces to cook evenly. As it begins to cook, turn the paratha over (approx. 1 minute later). This first side should be lightly spotted but not have dark spots. If this happens too quickly, reduce the heat. Repeat on the second side; this is the second flip. At the third flip, lightly baste the paratha with ghee and cook until dough changes color from white to one with tan-brown spots. Using a spatula, flip the paratha and repeat the basting. Both sides should have ghee—cooked once without ghee and once with ghee. Remove from heat and cover with a paper towel or a colander to help the steam evaporate. Once they have come to room temperature, the paratha’s can be transferred to an appropriate storage container and stored in the refrigerator for several days.
To warm the paratha’s, wrap them as a stack in foil and place in a warm oven for 20 minutes, or warm individually on the griddle.