Vasundhara Chauhan

Gourmet Files: Indispensable roti

Getting it right: Making the phulka is not as easy as it sounds. PHOTO: K. RAMESH BABU   | Photo Credit: K_RAMESH BABU

Talking of diets one day, a friend said she could give up anything but roti. I said, No, the other stuff was more fun. But she said Think about it: would you enjoy alu gosht without it? Or gobi matar? Or dal?

And she was right: there are days when I try to cut down the number of rotis in my lunch and the meal becomes boring. However delicious the daal sabzi, they're incomplete.

How does one describe the taste of a roti? It's not salty or sweet or anything; it's a wrapper, a foil, a base for other tastes. And yet the smell of a phulka on a fire, getting speckled and puffing up, or a paratha being fried, turning golden brown, crisp outside and flaky within, are very definite flavours.

The one I find most compelling, though, is when the smell of one getting baked in a tandoor wafts across from somewhere; you can almost taste the crisp browned edges and the little bumps of air pockets; there's almost a sweetness to it, calculated to whip up an appetite.

Generic term

The term roti is generic and includes all sorts; phulka (probably from phoola, puffed), chapati, paratha and often also incorporates methods of cooking, like tandoori roti; or ingredients, like makki ki roti and missi, mixed (flour) roti; or even shape and size, like the roomali roti. I knew that our bread is perhaps the only one in the world that is unleavened, but it came as a surprise to learn that in the Indian subcontinent – the home of roti – it was originally made out of barley. Wheat was around too, but not used as widely. Corn came later.

Bread is the staff of life, but its very big downside is that it cripples the Indian housewife; it's also a stick to beat her with. India is great, India is unique, and possibly only India has unleavened bread. But is there another nation where, in the 21st century, bread is made fresh for every meal? Where “ roti” means food? I know some people – not too many – who enjoy cooking.

Cumbersome process

But not one who enjoys sieving flour, kneading it, leaving it to “rest” with little dimples of water, scooping it out of the paraat and into another container, lifting out a heavy marble chakla (see; there's no word for it in English), rolling phulkas/rotis/chapattis, dusting them one by one with dry atta, rolling them again, shaking off excess atta, heating each on a tawa, flipping it over, transferring it onto a direct flame, moderating the flame to make it puff up, lifting it off onto a plate and serving it to hungry mouths. And I'm talking of good, experienced cooks.

My kind are another story. The atta is always so wet that it's sticky – when I try to roll a roti it tears; some gets stuck to the rolling pin and the rest to the chakla. I envy and admire people who make the roti spin as they roll, then deftly lift it like a hanky. I try to add more atta, and sometimes, not often, the roti can be taken to the fire, to the next stage, but then it turns out dry and hard, more a dog biscuit than fit for human consumption. And there's so much mess; everything is covered in atta, even the burner holes are choked. The next stage is one where the roti sticks to the tawa, and if I succeed in getting it off in one piece and on to the fire, then there's no hope of it puffing up sweetly; all I can do is to roast it like a thick papad.

I found that making parathas is easier than phulkas, but with the ever present fear of calories and cholesterol that's not a frequent option. Thick ulte tawe ki rotis are easier, and they have the advantage of substituting for tandoori rotis. Of course they lack the flavour of burning charcoal, but aren't a bad stand-in.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.

Ulte Tawe ki Roti

Ingredients

Kneaded whole wheat flour

A large pan or bowl half filled with water

Gas flame burner (a hot plate won't work)

Method: Heat a tawa/griddle. Meanwhile, roll a roti about twice the thickness of a phulka/chapatti, about ¼-inch thick. With fingertips of both hands, lift it off the rolling board and dip in water. Make sure that all of it is wet. Do not leave in water for any length of time; just immerse it for a few seconds, long enough to wet it everywhere. Lift it out carefully; the dough will be wet and pliable, so any rough handling will stretch it. Place it on the hot tawa in such a way that there are no folds. When the underside is partially cooked, small blisters appear on the upper side. Lift the tawa off the heat and, holding it firmly by the handle, turn it upside down over the fire, so that the uncooked side faces the heat. Lower the flame to medium. The roti will start getting speckled. Check to see that the colour is turning brown and not black and burnt. When it is cooked through, the roti will dry and fall off the tawa onto the flame. Using tongs, roast the roti on the fire, making sure that all of it gets evenly browned and crisp.

Pound a few cloves of garlic with salt and mix with chilli powder and melted ghee. Spread thinly on rotis when serving.


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