The art of breaking bread

Believe it or not, Indian breads have a history dating back to Harappan civilisation. Join Mukul & Shilpa Gupta on a lip-smacking trip to savour the breads that India makes and eats

ALU KULCHA

Roti-making is an art. Right from how you knead the dough to how long you rest it, and from how you roll it to how you roast it, making a perfect roti is a skill that comes with practise. So how did this art form become a political tool?

It happened in the mind: Some, that were paranoid, others, that were agreeable. An incremental relay was taking place across India in February 1857. In the cover of darkness, chowkidars were running to adjoining villages to hand over chapatis to their counterparts with the instruction that each recipient was to make more of them and pass them on to the next village. Within days, almost the entire country was in the grip of a chapati stir with no one quite sure what it signified. The Indians who received them interpreted it as some sort of a sign and the spooked British thought the natives were up to something seditious. This, “most mysterious affair,” as a British official described it, came to be dubbed the Chapati Movement.

Bedmi in Old Delhi
Bedmi in Old Delhi

Humble musings

Mercifully, the humble chapati is back to being what it had set out to be: our daily bread. But make no mistake. Far from being uni-dimensional, the Indian bread is a multi-faceted, chameleonic entity: It can be sweet, savoury or plain; it may be fried, roasted, steamed or baked; it could be rested, unleavened, fermented. Sometimes, the distinction is subtle. For instance, what is called a chapati — bread from wholewheat dough that is rested, rolled and roasted on a tava — becomes a phulka when cooked briefly on fire, food historian K T Acharya wrote in his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. In some cases, the difference lies more in name than in substance. Matar kachori, a favourite in Uttar Pradesh, turns into koraishutir kochuri in Bengal (both are puris stuffed with green peas). The jowar bhakri of Maharashtra is Telangana’s jonna rotte. The much-loved lachcha paratha, griddle-fried and liberally endowed with ghee, morphs into the Kerala (or Malabar) parotta — flaky, silky, feathered (the latter is made with maida, ghee and, sometimes, an egg, whereas the lachcha paratha can be made of wholewheat or maida). Meghalaya’s sweet rice cake putharo is akin to Kerala’s puttu. The baati of Rajasthan takes the form of Bihar’s litti, albeit with some changes (both are made of wholewheat, baked over wood fire and doused in ghee, but litti has a filling of sattu and spices whereas baati is a ball of the dough).

Gujrati thali
Gujrati thali

All in the making

Made with different lentils, chilla (also called pooda) is North India’s version of that southern staple, dosa. The flours can be different, the methods may vary, the colours and textures can be contrasting, and the fillings are all about the cook’s ingenuity. In most cases, flour is mixed with water and kneaded to form a dough. Sometimes, oil or ghee is added for, depending on the amount used, either softness or crunchiness. Herbs and spices are the other add-ons. Taking the complexity a notch higher are breads that require leavening. Batter sometimes replaces dough. The staggering variety of rustic breads reflects India’s diversity and size. There is, however, a slight problem: we have far too many stereotypes associated with food. The wholesomeness of Punjabiyat is mostly depicted with parathas heaped with mammoth amounts of white butter. Those South of the Vindhyas are represented with idli or dosa (and banana leaf). Bengali cuisine is associated only with maach-bhaat even though there’s an abundance of luchi and other breads too, and a Gujarati just has to be shown having a ‘snake’ (snack) of khakhra. The truth is that though each region may have its own staples, none can be straitjacketed. Rice is the mainstay of Bengali food, all right, but certain dishes taste best with breads. Radhaballabhi, a deep-fried bread of maida with a stuffing of dal, is eaten with aloor dum. Luchis — thin, plumped-up maida puris — need aloor dum or dalna or cholar dal — to offset the crispiness. Moral of the story? Like wine, even bread has to be paired just so.

Egg roll from Kolkata
Egg roll from Kolkata

The accompaniments

Deep-fried bhatura is best with chhole, steamed puttu enlivens the kadala curry, pav enhances the flavour of bhaji, a roomali roti does magic with seekh kebab. Appam deserves the coconut milk-based stew. For galouti kebabs, an ulta tawa paratha does it. Makki roti, needless to say, mandates sarson ka saag. And nothing like polishing off nalli nihari with khamiri roti (best described as a desi version of pita, it is a soft, spongy leavened breadkhamiri roti is to Mughlai cuisine what litti is to Bihari). While tandoori rotiroomali roti, kulcha and choor-choor paratha are easily recognised — and readily available — there are some North Indian breads that are only found in either specialty restaurants or aristocratic kitchens run by exceedingly skilled khansamas (cooks).

Gilafi kulcha (baked, with an envelope-like cover), warqi paratha (layered, like the lachcha but technically different), taftan (think naan flavoured with cardamom or saffron, with an increased flakiness; it is in the repertoire of Awadhi cuisine) are only a few. The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge mentions doli ki roti, a fermented and deliciously-flavoured indigenous wheat bread from Punjab (‘doli’ was the earthen pot used for fermentation).

Luchi as part of Benglai thali
Luchi as part of Benglai thali

Glamorised

Thanks to Bollywood and its umpteen jokes about the Gujarati nashto of khakhra-fafda-thepla-dhokla, almost everyone is familiar with the thin, soft theplas made of wholewheat flour, methi (fenugreek) and masalas. Eaten with chhundo, it is fuss-free and can last for days. In reality, the Gujarati kitchen rustles up much more than just the thepla or the papad-like but healthy khakhra. Rotla is a thick flatbread of bajra (millet). Where the people of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh like it with jaggery, Kathiawadis have their rotla with garlic chutney, kadhi and a spicy curry like sev-tameta or bataka nu shaak. Then there’s also the dhebra made with pearl millet (bajra) flour. Carts selling dal-pakwaan are ubiquitous in Kutch which has a substantial Sindhi population. The biscuit-like pakwaan is eaten with chana dal, and fried green chillies add another layer of imploding taste. Sindhis are also known for koki, a twice-roasted thick wholewheat roti flavoured with onions and spices.

Bhakris, common in Maharashtra and parts of central India, are forgiving. They can be made with any grain (wheat, millet, sorghum, even rice), and vary in thickness, size and coarseness of the flour. Thalipeeth — crispy, pan-fried multigrain bread — is another Maharashtrian delight. The rapidly vanishing dashmi roti (wherein jaggery is added to the roti dough) and gaakar are also flatbreads of Maharashtra. The story of bread in Himachal is similiar to that of Bengal; the hill state too is partial to rice.

Dabeli
Dabeli

Indispensable

In fact, the multi-course Kangri Dham comprises entirely of rice. Even so, breads are not completely dispensed with. Bhaturu is prepared from fermented wheat dough, either roasted or fried. A variation is bharwan bhaturu, wherein the bhaturu is stuffed with dal or veggies. Another bread from the foothills of the Dauladhars is the siddu. Leavened and stuffed, it is either steamed or griddle-fried. In places with a sizeable population of Tibetan Buddhists — like Dharamsala, of course, and Manali — tingmo is extensively consumed. A steamed bread, it goes well with dishes like pork chilly. Tsampa, a nutty flour made from roasted barley, is another Tibetan import.

Every region makes abundant use of locally available grains and flavours. In the extreme north of the country, saffron often, but not always, flavours the breads. Chochwor, the desi doughnut with a sprinkling of sesame or poppy seeds, is soft yet crispy, perfect with a cup of tea or nun chai (salt tea). Lavasa or lavaash is pita’s paper-thin Kashmiri cousin, whereas katlams are real crisp. A new day necessitates czot, a heavily scored tandoor-baked bread. Bakarkhani is another flatbread with a biscuit-like texture. In Telangana, indigenous millets like sorghum, and finger, pearl and foxtail millets are used more than rice. And the north-east relies on the red rice to make its breads.

Rotla
Rotla
 

Blender’s pride

In  southern India, flatbreads are actually more like crepes or pancakes. Dosa and utthapam, of course, are universal. But not easily found in regular South Indian restaurants across the country are breads like adai (a dosa made with a fermented batter of a mix of lentils), pesarattu (from Andhra Pradesh, it is made with moong dal and rice, and eaten with allam pachadi, a spicy-tangy ginger pickle, or allam chutney), appam (pancakes made with a fermented batter of rice and  coconut milk) or Coorgi akki roti made of rice flour. There’s also idiyappam or string hoppers, bowl-shaped appams (hoppers) with a spongy centre, pathiri or aripathil from the Malabar (neypathal is deep-fried pathiri flavoured with coconut and fennel). Puttu is a steamed mixture of rice flour and coconut. Also steamed but with a different texture and taste is the pesaha appam, an unleavened cake of rice, urad dal and coconut, made by the Syrian Christians of Kerala. It is eaten with paal, a cooked syrup of coconut milk and jaggery, on Maundy Thursday (Passover night). The Anglo-Indian breudher is flavoured like a cake but has a texture of bread and is from Kochi. Goans, who are credited with introducing the rest of the country to breads, were inspired by the Portuguese and, unable to find the foreign ingredients, came up with their own indigenous versions of the bread. Adopting and adapting went alongside. Since yeast was inaccessible, early recipes of pav or pao — spongy buns — used toddy as a fermenting agent.

Sheermal
Sheermal

Just name it...

Kankonn is ring-shaped, making it the Goan equivalent of a doughnut. The wholewheat poee and round unddo are the other favourites. Sannas, steamed rice cake, is also from Goa.  Not all Indian breads are bland or savoury. Among the sweet breads, the puran poli — widely made in Gujarat and Maharashtra — is both famous and popular. Made of wholewheat or refined flour, it has a filling of lentils, coconut, jaggery and fennel.

Similar dishes with different names — boli, holige, bakshalu, bobbatlu and obbattu are some — can be found in India’s southern states.

There are other sweet breads that are more esoteric. Pithe — steamed or fried dumplings of rice flour with different fillings — is common in Odisha, Bengal and Assam (in the south, it is called Kozhkatta).

A common note running through most traditional sweet breads is the combined use of rice, coconut and jaggery. You can find it in the case of patishapta, a delicate Bengali sweetmeat of rice flour crepe, and in Meghalaya’s putharo. It is a pancake made from ground red sticky rice with – you know it – coconut and jaggery. Tal angangaba, a sweet, fried bread, is a specialty of the Meitei community in Manipur. Mangalore buns are made with maida, ripe bananas and yogurt; the mixture is left to rise and then deep-fried. There’s also sheermal, a mildly-sweet baked flatbread made with saffron-infused milk that is a key component of an Awadhi dastarkhwan. This, though, is mostly eaten with curries or, as with other breads, gulped down with tea. Where Indians go, their breads follow (and we aren’t alluding to travellers who cart along long-lasting theplas and puris). Trinidad knows of dal-puri. Malays love roti canai. In Fiji, roti wraps are popular. The journey was different in another era. There are suggestions that roti may have come from East Africa via the trade route, naan from Central Asia, flour from the Middle East. But that the roti had existed at least five centuries ago is a fact widely documented. Whether Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, the Ain-I-Akbari (the third volume of Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama announcing that Mughal emperor Akbar loved it), or the Bhavaprakasa, considered an authoritative text on Ayurveda, there is enough literature to vouch for the roti’s existence in the 16th century. But what is a surprise is that it apparently existed even during the Harappan Civilisation.

If the antecedents of indigenous Indian breads are under a bit of shadow, so is the future. Urban, affluent India may know its ciabatta from its foccaccia, and words like brioche, bruschetta and stollen may no longer be foreign. Pashti, sannas, khambir are, however, a different matter (just so you know, pashti is a pan-fried bread of rice flour that’s first cooked in boiling water; sannas is steamed rice cake; khambir is a thick crusty Ladakhi bread of fermented wholewheat cooked on fire). Many traditional and rustic Indian breads are facing the possibility of extinction. “Only people belonging to a particular region or age group seem to know about these,” says Saee Koranne-Khandekar, culinary consultant and author of the seminal book Crumbs! Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen. She rattles off the names of some naturally fermented breads: The Pathare Prabhu pao (made using a preferment of potato peels and chana dal), maande from Belgaum (paper-thin, pastry-like mildly sweet bread), the Goan poee and its various avatars made using freshly tapped toddy, the Rajasthani khoba roti ... the list is long and getting more so. “They are neither commercially available nor written about or promoted actively,” Koranne-Khandekar rues. It may be time for another Chapati Movement, this one of a different kind. Let’s claim our bread and eat it too, shall we?

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