Cheers to chapatis

For sheer versatility, few other food items can rival the chapati. Easy to cook and nutritious, it can take multiple avatars to pamper all palates. Besides this, it is eminently portable. Known as the unleavened bread of the East, its popularity even half a century ago was confined to the North of India. In the 1950’s, when I was a child, it was still a novelty in Kerala. It hardly figured in the menu of the die-hard rice-eating southerner, appearing but rarely as a tea-time snack!

I well remember that in the college hostel I stayed in, it was served at dinner once a fortnight. Along with a delicious korma, it seemed a welcome change to me. However, the majority, whose taste-buds it irked if not offended, were up in arms against it and got it scrapped.

The chapati made its first foray into the south after World War II, when rice was in short supply. But what forced its way in remained to please and today it has not merely been accepted but won for itself a place of permanence. In a good number of homes, it turns up every night at the dinner table. Its incarnations are many—from the safe and healthy phulka to the robust and filling parantha.

The chapati can also convert a man into a machine. I have watched a roadside vendor tackling a whole heap of rolled out discs with consummate ease. With his right hand he slapped five or six of them onto a hot griddle, while unremittingly his left hand tossed them on to burning coals where they ballooned into a steady stream of ready-to-eat phulkas.

The chapati’s popularity knows no borders and it has endeared itself to foreign tongues. In one instance at least, it succeeded in winning friends and influencing people. Work took my sister and her husband to Holland. To their dismay, neighbours treated them with coldness if not hostility.

Determined to win them over, my sister invited them to dinner. One of the items served were chapatis. They were an instant hit especially with the children. Soon they were in and out of the house clamouring for more. The ice was broken and lasting friendships made. What is round, they say, must come around. So it is with the chapati. A silent but strong unifier, it wins its way through the stomach into the heart.

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