The world over, Indian food is largely perceived as curries. While this isn’t strictly true-considering the large amounts of spices and their quantities and types used-it is really quite inevitable, unless one is aware of the cooking styles in this country.
India is a land of abundant cultures and sub cultures, each having their own unique way of cooking, with very little in common between them. Cooking styles vary, and so do tastes, textures and spices used. However, three main spices are common throughout India- Turmeric (Haldi), Salt (Namak) and Red Chilli Powder (Mirch). Keeping these as a base, Indian cooks create a huge variety of dishes by varying add-on spices.
In this article, I’ll introduce some common and not so well known north Indian breads. For the record, the term ‘North India’, from a cultural point of view, includes New Delhi, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Rajasthan. Except New Delhi, which is more of a cosmopolitan city-state, all these places have their own distinct food culture and traditions. It is therefore slightly unfair to club them all in a single term when discussing food, but it will have to do for the purpose of this article.
North India typically has a multitude of griddle (tava) baked breads made with unleavened dough for the most part. The base dough for most consists of whole meal flour mixed with water and a little salt, the whole of which is then kneaded to a soft pliable consistency. This is then made into different types of breads as below.
Roti or Chapaati
For this bread, a small ball of dough is rolled out flat (about 1 – 2mm) in a circular shape (about 6 inches in diameter), these are dry baked on a hot griddle until splotchy brown and cooked through. The Roti has a few variants which are mentioned below.
A very close relative of the Roti, Phulkas are cooked on one side on a griddle and then laid on an open flame, which causes the Roti to puff up, at which point it becomes a phulka. The term ‘phul’ means to puff up or to bloat, hence the derivative Phulka.
Makki Ki Roti
This is a favorite winter time roti made using corn flour (makki ka atta). After making a simple dough with water (and perhaps some grated veggies like radish or carrots) a ball of the dough is pressed down on a piece of cloth or flexible plastic, as the dough is very brittle and doesn’t hang together. When the circle is roti sized, it is flipped over on to a hot griddle and usually served with vegetable pickle or sarson ka saag (mustard greens).
Ulte Tave Ki Roti
Literally translated, this means ‘Rotis cooked on an upturned Griddle’. Made the same way as normal Rotis, these are about double the normal thickness and placed on a hot griddle after wetting both sides of the uncooked Roti with water. This makes it stick to the griddle that in turn produces the desires effect when the griddle is upturned and the roti exposed to a naked flame. These Rotis are normally eaten with non-vegetarian dishes, but that’s mostly a matter of individual preference.
A Missi Roti is actually a normal roti, made with the normal dough as described earlier, to which various other types of flour and spices have been added. There isn’t any fixed recipe for this – it’s each one to his own here. One simple example would be to mix equal proportions of whole meal wheat and gram flour with some red chilli powder, salt, kasuri methi and perhaps a little cuminseed, add some water and make a soft dough. You could also knead in a little oil if you like. When done, cook on a hot griddle like a normal Roti.
The Tandoor is an upright cylinder with an outer sheath of metal and an inside made of a very thick layer of baked clay. Rotis made inside it are plastered to the inner walls. When roasting meats or cooking kebabs, the food is threaded on long metal skewers or Seekhs hence the name of the very popular kebab – Seekh Kebab.
Similar to Ulte Tave Ki Roti when rolled out, these are cooked in the Tandoor. After rolling, the roti is placed on the inside walls of the Tandoor and left to bake. Tandoori Rotis are usually a little more than double the thickness of normal Rotis.
The Kashmiris have a variant called Lavasa, which too is quite bland as it doesn’t have any seasoning. The dough uses refined flour as opposed to the wholemeal flour used for the Tandoori Roti. While it can be eaten with anything, it is typically eaten with highly spiced Kashmiri style mutton stews.
Tandoori Parathas are made much the same way as Lachha Parathas. The only difference is that they are cooked inside the Tandoor, rather than a hot griddle.
Naans are made using dough made of refined flour with a leavening agent of some sort. Some use fermented dough, others may use yeast and few people mix active yoghurt into the dough. The end result however, is the same – the dough must rise. Naans vary in size from a few inches across to a monster I’ve personally had the pleasure of demolishing, which was a little more than 1.5 feet in diameter. Typically, Naan’s are cooked in the tandoor, though an oven does the job too. Coal however, delivers a flavor that cannot be matched by a conventional oven.
Stuffed Naan (Amritsari)
Amritsar is an important city in the state of Punjab. The stuffed Naan takes its name from this city and is also called Amritsari Naan. A stuffed naan is made using the Naan dough, stuffed with a filling similar to a stuffed paratha and usually rolled into a circle. It is then stuck to the inner walls of the Tandoor to cook.
There are many types of parathas and they’re all high calorie and quite delicious.
A thin layer of oil or clarified butter (ghee) is spread on the surface of the rolled Roti and folded until it’s a square about an inch across, with oil being spread on every un-oiled surface that’s exposed upwards. It is then rolled again and the process is repeated a few times. The Paratha is then cooked on a hot griddle, with liberal splashes of oil or ghee. The final result is a crisp (or not) bread that is multi layered and tastes quite good with just about anything. Typically, it isn’t eaten with non-vegetarian dishes. In ethnic Muslim cuisine, this is also called Roghani Roti, where ‘Roghani’ refers to ‘fat’.
The stuffed paratha starts out as a Roti rolled out, in the centre of which is placed a dollop of stuffing (spiced, mashed boiled potatoes, cauliflour etc). The Roti is then picked up by the edges, sealed (by pressing together) and then rolled out again. This is then cooked the same way as a Paratha. Typically it is served crisp, with yoghurt (sometimes whipped) with pickles. An idea after-paratha drink is sweet, milky tea.
A Lachha Paratha is composed of many layers – many more than a normal paratha. Also, the layers here are horizontal as well as vertical, as opposed to only vertical in a normal Paratha. This is made by rolling out a Roti, spreading oil or ghee on the surface and then cutting it into strips. These strips are place one on top of the other and holding the pile by both ends, twisted into a roundish shape. This is then rolled flat and cooked on a griddle. Another way of making this is to make a long cylindrical shape with the dough, coating it with oil and starting from one end, making it into a wheel shape with concentric circles. As with technique #1, this is then rolled flat and cooked on a hot griddle, or in a Tandoor.
In the context of Muslim cuisine, this is also known as a Warqui Paratha, where Warqui means ‘leaves’ and is similar to the word Warq, which refers to the beaten silver or gold sheets that are used to decorate sweets.
This is more of a technique than a recipe. Literally translated ‘Roomal’ means ‘Handkerchief’ and the Roomali Roti is just that. A very soft, thin and large bread that folds and bends just like cloth. While it can be eaten with just about anything, it is a particular favorite when it comes to making rolls or wraps.
Cheela is a variant of the Roti that is made with gram flour instead of the normal wholemeal wheat flour. However, unlike the humble Roti, there’s considerable scope for creativity here. Various additions can be made to the basic gram flour mixture like finely chopped onions, green chilli, coriander and just about anything else that has been well drained, like the outer flesh of tomatoes for example. The Cheela is also quite well seasoned, usually with Ajowan (carom, ajwain, or bishop’s weed), powdered black pepper, red chilli powder and coriander powder (dhania). After mixing everything together with a little water to make the dough, Cheelas are cooking just like Parathas, on a hot, flat griddle, brushing each side with a little oil before turning over.
The Kulcha is a variety of baked flat bread that is made using refined flour. It is leavened with baking powder and active, whole milk yoghurt. It can be eaten as is or lightly toasted in a pan or toaster. It tastes slightly sour and is sometimes garnished with chopped coriander leaves on top. Kulchas are usually eaten with a chickpea curry and are also good with Indian pickles for breakfast.
Another variant is the Kashmiri Kulcha. Made with a dough that is quite similar to the one used for Tel Varu, the Kashmiri Kulcha is quite different from the normal Kulcha. While the normal Kulcha is slightly sour tasting and quite soft, the Kashmiri Kulcha is quite crisp and rusk-like. It comes in two flavors – sweet and salty with a spot of cumin seed. The Kashmiri Kulcha too is normally eaten with tea – Sheer Chai, Kahwa or normal tea.
Bhaturas are one of my all time favorites. Usually thick and soft, they can be crispy too and are traditionally eaten with one of many varieties of chickpea curry. Refined flour forms the base for this bread, which is leavened with yoghurt and yeast and flavored with a little sugar and salt. After rising, the dough is rolled out and pulled from one side to make it slightly elongated, after which it is deep fried in hot oil.
Puris are made using the same dough as that for the Roti. The only difference is that a little oil is added and the Puri dough needs to be stiff as opposed to soft for the Roti. After allowing the dough to rest for 30 – 90 minutes, the dough is taken off the main mass in a hunk, rolled into a ball, a corner dipped in oil and then rolled in a circular shape to about 4 inches in diameter. When frying, the Puri must inflate and swell out, which is usually accomplished by tossing hot oil over it from the pan in which it’s being fried. When lightly brown on top, it is taken out and drained. Puris are usually eaten with potato or chicken pea curry. In some parts of India, puris are also eaten with a sweet mango puree or semolina halva (a sweet dish made using clarified butter, nuts and roasted semolina)
Another variation is the Luchi. Using the same dough as the Puri, it usually more than 2 feet across, sometimes nearly a meter in diameter. Luchis are made on festive occasions and obviously require special utensils for the oil and for retrieval. Quite light in texture, they are shallow fried, not deep fried like the Puri.
Sheermaal is a baked flatbread from ethnic Muslim cuisine. It is made using a dough comprising refined flour, milk, a pinch of salt, sugar, clarified butter (ghee) and Vetivier (kewda). This dough is rolled into circular shape about 2 – 3mm thick. The saffron is mixed with some warm milk and used to brush the bread from time to time when it’s baking in the oven. This gives the bread its characteristic orangish yellow color. When done the sheermaal must be brushed with some white (freshly churned) butter and served immediately.
Bakarkhani is a spongy, thick, round bread that has its origins in ethnic Muslim cuisine. Made with leavened flour, mawa and eggs, it is baked in an oven and is usually eaten with mutton dishes such as Nihari or Korma. The preparation process is quite time consuming as the dough needs to be kneaded for hours then rolled out and folded over (with clarified butter and flour sprinkled on every fold) several times before it is ready. When the dough is ready, it is rolled into disc about a centimeter thick and 4 to 5 inches in diameter. These are then sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked. While baking they are basted twice with whole milk. The texture of Bakarkhani can be a bit dry at times, however, considering it is eaten with curries in most part, this feature actually helps soak up and retain flavor while eating.
This bread too has a Kashmiri variation called the Katlam. The only difference is in the size, where the Kashmiri version is usually smaller and crisper than its mainline cousin. Like many Kashmiri breads, it is eaten with hot tea.
The Bhati is quite unlike any other Indian bread. Predominantly eaten in the state of Rajasthan, Bhatis are made with unleavened wholemeal flour dough into which a little salt and clarified butter have been mixed. The dough is shaped into small balls and baked in a moderately hot oven until brown on the outside and soft on the inside. Bhatis are traditionally served in a container that is then filled with clarified butter. They are eaten after being allowed to soak for a while.
This bread is Kashmiri in origin. Tel Varu closely resembles a bun and is sprinkled with sesame seeds on the crust, which is quite crisp. Slightly salty in taste, it is made with normal bread dough – really a local variation of bread as we all know and love. Tel Varu is usually eaten with Sheer Chai, which is salty Kashmiri tea.
… and that completes the list, though there are probably a few regional specialiaties I’ve missed out.