Indian breads: Flat-out fabulous

September 12, 2007

 

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A crackle, a poof. Chapatis and puris are easy to make at home.

By Sudha Koul, Special to The Times
September 12, 2007

Indian breads, collectively called rotis, have become extremely popular restaurant items in the U.S. They are eminently doable at home as well.

The breads as we know them here are from central and northern India, where mostly wheat is grown. In those regions, rice may be eaten, but meals are always centered around fresh homemade breads. In southern, western and eastern India as well as in pockets up north, rice is the staple, but breads are becoming popular throughout the country, albeit in local interpretations.

I find a dazzling array of possibilities greets me when I go to India: essential chapatis, luxurious parathas (plain and stuffed), festive puris and elegant nans (just buttered or stuffed). Within these four main categories are a variety of improvisations too numerous to mention. (I am often asked whether pappadums and dosas are breads. I would categorize the former as lentil wafers served with condiments and the latter as crêpes; not the staff of life but, rather, elegant accessories.)

All rotis are unleavened flatbreads, the exception being tandoori nans, which are commercially prepared yeast breads, but even these are always flat, albeit fluffy and light as air. Western-style bakery breads, called double rotis (presumably for the two risings of the dough), and tandoori nans are available only at restaurants and cafes, for the simple reason that hardly any home kitchen in India is equipped with a tandoor, and only a small percentage of yuppie cooks there have Western-type ovens.

Admittedly, in a population base of more than 1 billion, even a small percentage is nothing to sneeze at! But cooking in India typically is a stove-top affair. Of the four main Indian breads, the simplest is the humble chapati, the perfect accompaniment to vegetables, curries and dals (lentils). Puris, deep fried breads that puff up into incredible little round balloons, are at the other end of the spectrum. Festive breads, they are usually eaten with some kind of potato dish, or with sweet sooji (cream of wheat) halva.

For successful chapatis or puris, it’s important to have the right flour and utensils, and to carefully regulate the heat.

The best flour for chapatis and puris is durum atta flour. Also called chapati flour, atta is available in Indian groceries as well as some really eclectic supermarkets. If you must, use regular whole wheat-white flour, not stone-ground (not a choice for those of us who have grown up with the chapati flour), but do not use all-purpose flour. For one, the breads will be inauthentic (only Bengali luchis are made with all-purpose flour); for another, the dough will not roll out the way it should.

In Gujarat state, in western India, they use very slim rolling pins to make paper-thin rotis; up north the pins are of wider diameter and the breads are more robust. The traditional Indian belan is a one-piece tool. When I first arrived in the U.S., a newly minted bride, and tried to use an American rolling pin to make chapatis, the dough refused to budge. Today, although slim, Indian pins also have movable middles.

For both chapatis and puris, make the dough, form it into a log like a cookie roll and set it aside to rest. Then, cut it into portions to make small balls of dough which you will roll out into discs. A griddle is excellent for cooking chapatis; puris are always deep-fried, preferably in a wok.

Indians use a heavy, cast-iron tawa to make breads such as chapatis; it is slightly concave in the middle, a centuries-old design, adapted to live cooking fires. Today, with flat cooking surfaces, a large cast-iron skillet or griddle works beautifully; as my metallurgist husband tells me, it is all about low conductivity.

Whether you’re cooking a batch of chapatis or frying up puris, however, you must bring the griddle or wok to a seasoned good heat. In other words, keep it at medium-high heat for a minute or so before you start cooking. Then regulate up or down to maintain that medium-high heat level to cook the rotis evenly and thoroughly without burning.

Now, recipes, ingredients and utensils in hand, you are on your way. One last word of advice: Make a trial chapati or puri first to make sure cooking temperatures are right.

You could serve the chapatis or the puris with a dry-ish (not too much sauce) vegetable dish such as a crisply fried potato and peas curry; or potato and okra sautéed with onions and cumin seed; or a channa masala(spiced garbanzo beans) cooked with boiled and quartered potatoes. Add a bowl of cool beet-ginger raita, an incredibly easy to make, colorful concoction of grated vegetables, spices, yogurt and sour cream, and you have a flavorful end-of-summer meal.

Yogurt is an indispensable part of an everyday Indian meal, but this glamorous beet-ginger raita takes yogurt to the level of delicacy. More important, it complements the chapatis and puris to perfection.

 Chapatis

Total time: 30 minutes, plus resting time

Servings: Makes 8 chapatis

Note: Chapati flour can be found at well-stocked Indian stores such as Bharat Bazaar in Culver City and India Sweets & Spices (several locations).

2 cups chapati flour, plus additional for dusting chapatis

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and salt together. Stir in three-fourths cup water (or more as necessary), adding it in increments until you achieve a firm, not too soft and certainly not stiff dough. Knead the dough for a couple of minutes until you achieve a smooth consistency, then roll it into a log. Set the dough aside, covered with plastic wrap, for about 30 minutes to rest.

2. Divide the roll into 8 portions and dust lightly with flour. Roll each piece of dough between your palms until you achieve a ball with a smooth surface. Flatten the dough balls slightly with three fingers, then dust lightly again with some flour to facilitate rolling.

3. Using a rolling pin, roll out each flattened dough ball into a circle about 7 inches across. Sprinkle a little more flour if required to prevent sticking, then dust off excess flour.

4. Place the rolled out chapatis on a tray, side by side. Cover with cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and set aside.

5. Heat a griddle over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, less if the griddle starts to give off a burning smell. Lower to the heat to low-to-medium heat. Place the chapati on the griddle. Flip the chapati after it changes color (lightly) all over — this should take a minute or so. Continue toasting for another half minute. Then turn it over. With a small hand towel or paper towel folded like a handkerchief, gently press the outer edges of the chapati down. It should start puffing up. Then press down gently in the middle; it should inflate into a ball.

6. Remove from the griddle. Serve hot off the griddle or stack them, buttered if you like, and wrap in a thick dry cloth napkin or kitchen towel.

Each chapati: 99 calories; 4 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 146 mg. sodium.

Recipe: Puris

Total time: 30 minutes, plus resting time

Servings: 15 to 20 puris

puris

puris

click to enlarge

Note: Chapati flour can be found at well-stocked Indian markets such as Bharat Bazaar in Culver City and India Sweets & Spices (several locations).

2 cups chapati flour, plus additional for rolling

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon anise seed, crushed (optional)

4 cups canola oil

1. In a medium bowl, mix the flour with the salt and optional anise seed. Add three-fourths cup water in increments just until you achieve a firm, stiff dough that breaks off when you pull, but doesn’t stretch. You may need to add a teaspoon or two more of water, but add it only if absolutely necessary. Knead the dough for 1 to 2 minutes to achieve a smooth consistency, then roll it into a ball. Set the dough aside, covered in plastic wrap, for 30 minutes to rest.

2. Divide the dough into 15 portions, 20 if you like really small puris, and dust lightly with flour. Roll each piece between your palms until you achieve a ball with a smooth surface. Flatten the dough balls slightly with 3 fingers, then dust lightly again with some flour to facilitate rolling.

3. Using a rolling pin, roll out each flattened dough ball into a circle about 4 to 4 1/2 inches across. Sprinkle a little more flour if required, but very little. Dust off excess flour. Place the rolled-out puris on a tray, side by side. Cover with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and set aside.

4. In a deep saucepan or wok, heat the oil so it is almost smoking or a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. To test if the oil is hot enough, drop in a small piece of dough: If it floats, the oil is ready; if not, the oil is not hot enough. Holding the puri at the edge with your fingertips, slide it carefully into the hot oil so that the oil does not splash on your hands. With a large spoon, baste the top of the puri with the oil while it fries. It will puff up in about 15 seconds. Turn it over and fry for another 5 seconds. The puri will be golden, but should not be too dark or crisp. Lift the puri from the oil with a slotted spoon and place on a platter lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil. Stack the puris wrapped in a thick, dry cloth napkin.

Each of 15 puris: 178 calories; 2 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 78 sodium.

Recipe: Fresh beet-ginger raita

 

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 6

2 medium beets, cleaned and trimmed

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/2 hot green pepper, serrano or Thai, seeded and finely minced

1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

Salt to taste

1/8 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup chopped cilantro (save a pinch for garnish)

1 cup plain, whole milk yogurt

1 cup sour cream

1. Place the beets in a small saucepan of boiling water so they are completely immersed. Cover and cook until they are tender, about 45 minutes. Drain the beets and cool them in a bowl of ice water until cool enough to handle. Peel the beets and dice them into about one-eighth-inch pieces. Place the diced beets in a fine mesh strainer and run them under cool water until the water draining is a pale pink. Drain the beets well.

2. In a medium bowl, gently mix the beets with the onion, hot green pepper, ginger, salt, cumin, black pepper, cilantro, yogurt and sour cream. Sprinkle a pinch of cilantro on top. Chill and serve.

Each serving: 60 calories; 2 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 5 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 11 mg. cholesterol; 26 mg. sodium.

 food@latimes.com

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