Let’s Start the Indian-Breads Fest…
When I think of Indian breads, a fond memory from early childhood comes to mind; the image of my sister and I at a specialty wheat grinding store, both of us covered in a light dusting of flour, mesmerized by a gigantic wheat grinding stone called ‘Chakki’ spinning around while crushing whole wheat grains into whole wheat ‘Atta’ flour.
What Makes Indian Bread Stand Out?
Most homemade Indian bread is unleavened and flat, made with the above mentioned ‘Atta’, an earthy flour of fiber-filled and protein rich, stone ground whole durum wheat grains.
However, the choice of grain varietals for making Indian bread certainly doesn’t stop at whole or refined wheat. Flour types ranging from millet-bajra, sorghum-jowar, maize-makki, lentils-daal and rice, to name a few, are used for creating a vast array of Indian breads, hailing from different regions of the country.
For example, southern India has a predominant use of crêpe-like flatbread made with a fermented rice and lentil batter, known as ‘Dosa’ in its many versions.
Regional Variations in Indian Bread
Let’s drop some names here and lay out the awe-inspiring variety of Indian breads from across the country, with overlapping trends that have developed over the centuries.
Specialties from the West:
Include soft Thepla and crisp Khakara and Bhakri, as well as soft Chapati, Roti and Phulka, using a mix of flour varietals like whole wheat-atta, gram lentil-besan, millet-bajra, sorghum-jowar; plus the joyful combination of deep-fried puffy Puris served with a western India favorite, sweetened yogurt Shrikhand.
North Indian Favorites:
Include whole wheat Roti, Chapati, Phulkas and various stuffed Parathas, along with Indian breads made with refined all-purpose flour-maida like Naan, Kulcha, Bhatura and Puri, and specialty ones like maize flour Makki Di Roti.
Delightfully Different South Indian Breads:
Include the crepe-like Dosa made using a fermented rice and lentil batter with a distinct tangy taste like none other, and its many variants like Uttapams thicker pancakes with toppings on the batter, Appams of a fermented rice flour and coconut milk batter and Idiyappams steamed crepes made with thin rice flour noodles, as also the much-loved southern multi-layered wheat Parathas.
Few but Fun East Indian Bread:
Although highly dependent on steamed cooked rice in their diet, wheat-based deep fried puffy Lucchi or Puris and layered folded Parathas can be found as part of East Indian meals.
Have I missed some? Share your favorite Indian bread in the comment stream below…
Getting them Cooked
Common cooking technique for home-cooked Indian bread is on a flat cast iron griddle ‘Tawa’ placed on the stovetop, and a flat square metal spoon used for flipping the flatbread. In the days gone by, Indian bread was cooked on an open fire, which imparts a whole new layer of smoky flavor to the bread.
Restaurants on the other hand, have the popular Indian clay-oven called ‘Tandoor’, which uses high temperature convection cooking, to add intense flavor to wheat breads like Tandoori Naan, Roti, Kulcha and Paratha.
Indian breads like the well known Puris and their larger softer counterparts Bhatura are deep fried, rendering a puffed Indian bread, crisp on the outside and soft cloud-like on the inside.
The intriguing variety and choices in Indian bread makes me want to applaud the evolved centuries old Indian cuisine, for setting the stage for creative bread-making twists, some of which are coming up in the Indian Bread Fest this month.
This week, let’s start with the most basic Indian bread of them all, Chapati-Roti.
- 2 cups whole wheat flour or Atta (see note on whole wheat flour)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup water, plus more as required
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
- In a large bowl, bring together the whole wheat flour and salt.
- Add ¼ cup of water at a time to make a soft dough ball.
- Heat the cumin seeds in oil till warm, not hot. This can be done on the stovetop or microwave oven. Cumin is not a requirement, but it imparts a smoky taste and texture to the Chapati.
- Knead the warm oil with cumin seeds into the dough.
- Once the dough ball has formed, move it to a clean kitchen countertop, and start kneading the dough with all your strength, for at least 5-7 minutes; the softness of a Chapati lies in the arm-strength of the 'kneader' (or the dough hook of this KitchenAid stand mixer.) Add a tablespoon of water at a time to aid the kneading process, as required.
- Tip: If you’ve added too much water in error, sprinkle some more flour and knead it into the dough. Unlike most baked flour recipes, Chapati is not an exact science.
- Put the dough ball back in the bowl and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. The dough will not rise, it just needs to rest.
- Roll out the dough into a log, and divide into 12 equal parts. Make small dough roundels with each part.
- Heat a flat cast iron griddle 'tawa' on the stovetop. Do not add any oil at this stage.
- Dust a wooden board or a clean kitchen counter with whole wheat flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough round into a 4-5 inch circular Chapati. Or use a tortilla or Roti press to make light work of this step.
- Cook the flatbread on the hot griddle for 2 minutes per side; there will be a brown crust on the Chapati. Repeat this step for each Chapati. If desired, rizzle oil or clarified butter-ghee over the chapati while still warm.
- Unused dough can be stored refrigerated in a covered container for up to 2 days.
- Chapati can be kept warm and soft, covered in a paper/cloth kitchen towel till they are consumed.
- To make 'Roti' using the same dough, divide it into 6 equal parts and roll out large slightly thicker circles of 6-8 inches each. Roti will need to be cooked for 3-4 minutes per side.
- Indian whole wheat ‘Atta’ flour can be found easily at Indian ethnic grocery stores. However, it is fine to use regular whole wheat flour or look out for whole wheat pastry flour, and use both in an equal ratio. The Chapati outcome might be crisper with some flour types.
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