Love for rotis, phulkas and parathas usually goes a long way...

How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?

- Julia Child

And how can a nation be great if its women spend hours every day kneading dough, rolling and cooking it on a griddle to make hot-hot, fresh-fresh rotis, phulkas and parathas? I can cook most anything but rotis. When I started a household my husband, then as excited about playing “house-house” as I was, would knead the atta while I practised and learnt how to make phulkas. It tasted like Kleenex if we were lucky; dry cardboard Kolhapuri chappals were more like it. Coming straight from institutional messes and elephant-ear rotis, we still ate them. Today if there weren’t some unlucky hired help to do the chore, we would live without them. I’d rather eat sliced white bread or bought kulchas, and now I see supermarket refrigerators stacked with frozen parathas and realise that times have changed. If you have money, you can always throw it at the problem.

But that still doesn’t take away from the joy we all know of fresh phulkas, the appetising smells that waft from the kitchen when they’re being flipped on the burner flame and the luxury of tearing into one coated with melting ghee and lightly crushed in the fist, in the manner of grandmothers.

Despite all that, eating them morning, noon and night does become a bit boring and my fancy turns to thoughts of change. Parathas are so loaded with guilt that I can’t eat one more than one a month. Stuffed parathas, which were such an accessible treat some years ago, have been forced to give way to stuffed rotis, cooked crisp on a tawa but without benefit of oil or any kind of fat. So we devise variations on dry roti. Sometimes we cook an ulte tawe ki roti on an upside-down tawa and smear it with a paste of garlic and red chillies, but, if the accompaniment is green and leafy, we use atta that has grains other than wheat. The mix for missi roti, regular whole-wheat atta and chane ka atta, is standard. But we recently discovered what the label touts as “anti-diabetic atta”, a mix of barley, jawar, bajra, moong, makka, moth and chana. It might be low on the glycemic index, but anti-diabetic? I don’t know. Anyhow the flour is coarse and dark and needs to be kneaded a good hour or more before cooking. The dough doesn’t stretch or get rolled easily, possibly because of low gluten content. The rotis are slightly thick, rough and bursting with taste. This combination is recommended in winter so the abundance of seasonal leafy greens like spinach, mustard and bathua and other is welcome.

But there are times when green is not the flavour of the day — nothing will do but a strongly spiced reddish brown curry. Just the other day we went out to dinner and I had a focused desire: not just Indian food but a sharp, clove and black pepper-filled curry, with a sweet roti. The food when it arrived did not disappoint too hugely. The curry would have been better if homemade, but the roti! Both Bunty and I had been intrigued by the menu’s mention of tandoori roti filled with walnuts and figs and loved it when it arrived. Inside there were coarsely crushed walnuts and minced figs. They must have been rehydrated dried figs — this is hardly the season for fresh ones — and you could taste their gentle sweetness and the crunch of seeds. That slightly sweet, mildly nutty roti was not just a foil to the spicy curry, it was good enough to eat on its own. We make a version of this kind of roti, particularly in winter. It has no nuts, but a very delicate taste and flavour which is lovely with any thick masala-rich gravy.

NARANGI-KISHMISH ROTI

Makes 10 rotis

3 cups whole wheat atta

Pinch of salt

1-2 cups milk

1 tbsp raisins (kishmish), soaked and chopped

1 tbsp slivered orange peel

Stir orange peel and and chopped raisins into dry atta. Add milk and knead until quite soft. Cover with damp towel and keep for an hour. Make rotis a little thicker than you normally would.

(These rotis are soft and keep well on account of the milk. But don’t worry if they don’t puff up like regular phulkas. Top with butter or ghee.)