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Breads of India

(article, Devorah Lev-Tov)

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Quick, name a South Asian bread! 

Chances are, you'll answer, "Naan." And indeed, naan — that puffy, chewy, charry, oily bread baked in the intense heat of a tandoor — is indeed delicious. But the Indian subcontinent is home to many, many types of flatbreads that differ in ingredients and technique. 


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The simplest, most common accompaniment to a meal in northern India is usually chapati, or the slightly thicker roti. These are simple flatbreads made of just wholemeal flour (known as atta) and water cooked in a flat, cast-iron pan, called a tava in India, over the stove. Sometimes they are finished off by being put directly on a flame until they puff up. This is a bread that anyone can make, even the poorest of the poor who only have an open flame. 

From there, breads become more complex. There are layered parathas with or without stuffing, deep-fried puris and luchis, and cracker-like pappadums.

In south India, the dosa, a large, crêpe-like flatbread, is king. But the pancake-like uttapams, made from rice and fermented lentils, often with spices and vegetables baked in, are equally satisfying. 

Here's a round-up of the most popular Indian flatbreads.	


#(clear n1). [%image reference-image float='clear right' width=400 caption="Homemade naan."]Naan. A leavened bread made with yeast or bread starter, white or whole-grain flour, and water or sometimes milk, naan is baked in a tandoor, or oven. It yields a thick flatbread, similar to pita. As you probably already know, it tastes best fresh out of the oven with a smear of ghee (clarified butter) or butter, and is perfect for sopping up curries.

#(clear n2). Chapatis and rotis. These unleavened flatbreads are served with nearly every meal in India and are often eaten three times a day. Chapati and roti are used instead of utensils in most of India; you rip off a piece and use it to scoop up a portion of food.

These flatbreads are made from a dough comprised of whole-wheat or atta flour and water that is then rolled into a thin, flat disc with a rolling pin. The rolled-out dough is cooked on a dry tava, or skillet. In some regions, after several minutes on the skillet, it is then put directly on a flame, making it puff up like a balloon and get a little steamy on the inside. 

One popular variation is missi roti, which uses a dough that combines the wheat flour with chickpea flour (also known as gram flour or besan) and sometimes includes spices like cumin seeds, turmeric, and coriander leaves. 

#(clear n3). Parathas. [%image paratha float=right width=400 caption="Parathas often have a flaky, layered texture."] Parathas are a variation of chapatis and rotis. They also use whole wheat or atta flour and water to make a dough that is then cooked on a tava or skillet. 

There are then two ways to cook the dough. It can be left unstuffed, and the flattened disc is folded into fourths and then re-rolled, giving it a flaky, layered texture. Or it can be stuffed with various vegetables, such as cauliflower or greens, or the Indian cheese called paneer. 

Indians love parathas; the country even has a restaurant chain called Only Parathas, which offers parathas with dozens of fillings.

#(clear n4). Puris. Puris, which originated in the southeastern Indian state of Orissa, are the classic deep-fried breads of India. Puris are made from a simple dough of whole-grain wheat flour or atta, water, and salt. The dough is then rolled out into small, flat circles or into a larger form that small circles are cut from. The flat circles are then deep-fried in ghee or vegetable oil. 

You can make two types of puris this way: flat or puffed. If you want a flat puri, prick several holes into the dough before frying to allow steam to escape. To get a puffed-up puri, leave the dough as is. If left unpricked, the puri puffs up like a ball when it is fried due to moisture in the dough, which transforms into steam that expands. 

Puris can be eaten immediately and will have a crispy outside but a softer inside, or they can be stored and used later. Puris that have been stored are crunchy throughout and are used in Indian snack foods like pani puri or sev puri. 

#(clear n5). Luchis. A variation of puris, luchis use fine maida flour instead of atta. Maida is a refined flour made from the starchy endosperm of the grain and resembles cake flour. This is mixed with water and ghee to form a dough. It is then made into balls, rolled out, and deep-fried in ghee. Luchis are typical of West Bengal, Orissa, and Assam in India.

#(clear n6). Dosas. These crêpe-like flatbreads are from south India and have multiple variations, but the basic recipe calls for a mixture of rice and urad dal, Indian black lentils, that have been soaked in water and are then ground to form a batter, which then sits overnight to ferment. 

When the dosas are ready to be cooked, a thin layer of batter is ladled onto a greased, hot tava or skillet. Dosas are either folded in half or rolled like a wrap, and often have a filling inside. They are usually served with sambar and chutney. 

You can use different batter ingredients to make a variety of dosas. For example, you can use maida to make maida dosa, or semolina to make rava dosa. Neer dosas are made with only rice.

#(clear n7). Uttapams. Uttapams are dosas’ thicker cousins. Like dosas, their batter is also made with urad dal and rice that are soaked and then ground into a batter and left overnight to ferment. 

Uttapams are also cooked on a tava or skillet, but the batter is spooned on much thicker and left to cook on one side until bubbles form — just like a pancake — and then flipped. The result is a crisp outer surface and a soft and spongy inside. Toppings like onions and tomatoes are very common, leading some people to refer to uttapams as "Indian pizza."

#(clear n8). Pappadums. These are the most cracker-like of all the flatbreads. They are made with either chickpea or urad dal flour (also known as black gram), salt, peanut oil, and spices like black pepper, chile powder, and cumin. The dough is shaped into a thin disc and dried in the sun. It then can either be deep-fried, roasted over an open flame, or even microwaved.


p(bio). Devorah Lev-Tov is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She writes's pizza site and has written about food and travel for New York magazine, Bust magazine, and Tablet. You can read about her adventures at Brooklyn Meets Bombay.

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