Food is never just something to eat. -Margaret Visser
Having been raised in Canada, there are so many things about my Indian heritage that I gave up or lost inadvertently. But the one thing that binds me to my past, despite how or where I live, is the food of my childhood, more specifically the simple Indian flatbread, or roti. Bread has this way with us, no? It’s a universal food, yet, each type defines its own culture, people and place, sometimes beyond nationalities and borders. In my opinion, the bread we call our own tells one more about who we are, and where we’ve come from, than our passports and birth certificates. And our last names.
I learned to make rotis when I was 11 years old. It would be the only thing I would learn to cook in my parents’ kitchen. Mine was not a traditional Indian family and the task of cooking or learning to cook was never bestowed upon me, despite being a girl. But eating fresh rotis was sacred in our home and making rotis was a daily affair, a habit brought over from our homeland. Yet, since both my parents worked outside of the home, I was required to help out with this one very important ritual.
Come dinnertime, there would always be fresh rotis on the table to accompany whichever meal–the more expensive lamb curry that we ate occasionally or a simple mung dal curry that we ate, it seemed, much too often.
By the time I moved out from my parents’ home, the motions required to transform a fistful-sized ball of dough into a perfectly thin, perfect circle were ingrained in the palms of my hands as much as the palm lines I was born with were. Perhaps, like these lines, they had always been there, from the start, encoded in my DNA, passed down from my ancestry.
Did you know? Rotis have been eaten for four thousand years dating back to the birth of the Indus valley civilization.
And though, human life has changed drastically in that amount of time, the ancient art of making rotis has remained much the same. And like those before me, I could probably make these blindfolded.
Nevertheless, no matter how at ease I am with making rotis, when I make them these days, I can’t ever seem to make them fast enough. My kids, the older ones and the young one, be it mealtime or bedtime, will all gather in the kitchen, plate in hand, waiting for the next puffed, hot roti to come off the stove and onto their plate. As with any bread, fresh is best. Topped with butter or ghee, they are devoured quickly. Or, as is the case with my more gourmand son, labneh, fresh mozzarella or even maple syrup are all equally viable toppings. This will be the bread that binds, at least one more generation to a 4000 year old past; this generation though, bearing a German last name.
Roti, an Indian Flatbread
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, plus extra in a small bowl for dusting (I use a mix of white whole wheat and brown whole wheat flour)
- 2 tbsp ghee or olive oil
- 1/2 cup boiling water plus an extra 3-5 tbsp to be added gradually
What You Will Need:
- a dough bowl (or large bowl)
- a belan, an rod type rolling pin as shown in the second photo from the top
- a patli, an elevated circular board (traditionally wooden) used as the rolling surface. An inverted stainless steel thali works well. (Forget about rolling directly on a countertop!)
- a metal spatula with a thin edged blade
- a traditional tawa (or flat cast iron pan)
- metal grill that can be placed on the stove top. I actually use a cheap metal hot pad. (You can do without this and cook the roti directly on the stove top, but personally, that is not my preferred way of doing it.)
Making the Dough and Rolling out the Roti
- In a large bowl, mix oil into the flour using your hand.
- Add 1/2 cup water and stir using a spoon. Wait for a minute or two until the dough has cooled enough to handle with your hands. (But, it should still be hot, test by touching a bit, be careful not to burn your hands!) Add remaining water, a tablespoon at a time and knead into a soft dough. It should not be sticky. If it feels too sticky, just compensate by dusting with a bit of flour and kneading some more.
- Divide into 15 balls. Roll each ball between the palms of your hands and flatten into disks.
- Cover disk with thin dusting of flour and roll out each disk into a thin, circular roti measuring 5-6 inches in diameter. Lay each roti on a clean, dry cloth in a single layer.
Cooking the Roti
- Set a cast iron pan on a stove burner on low-medium heat and allow it to heat up. Traditionally, a tawa (Indian frying pan) is used, but a typical flat cast iron pan will do. I use a 9.5 inch one.
- On the adjacent burner, set a grill. (I use a metal hot pad. Some people cook directly on an open flame.)
- Place roti on the cast iron pan and let it cook for 20-30 seconds. The surface will start getting small bubbles. Using a metal spatula, turn it over and cook on the other side for 40-50 seconds.
- While waiting, be sure to have another roti on your free hand.
- Next, turn over the roti that is on the cast iron pan again but this time place it on the grill.
- Place the next roti on the now empty cast iron pan and start the cooking process with this one.
- Back to the previous roti now… cook for 20 seconds on the grill. It should start to puff up. Turn it over and continue cooking on the other side for another 20 seconds. (You will need to turn over the roti in the cast iron pan during this time.) On each side, use the slightest of pressure using a spatula to coax the roti to puff up. It should puff up into a perfect sphere. Be really careful though, the roti could easily tear and release the steam inside and burn!
- Repeat until all of the roti are cooked.
- Stack up the roti (they remain soft that way) as they get cooked and cover when all done. I know, a video would be good here… let me work on that.
- When making dough by hand, it is best to use a dough bowl that is wider than it is high. These are way more comfortable.
- The typical roller type rolling pins are not well suited for making thin roti. If you have never used a rod type rolling pin before, you will need to practice…. a lot.
- Getting each roti to puff up into a perfect sphere takes lots of experience. Everything affects the end result (the dough, how you roll it, the heat settings, how long it is cooked on each side… ) so don’t be discouraged if you can’t achieve this on your first, or second, or third… try. This is not a forgiving recipe, it really is a craft that requires a lot of practice. Don’t worry though, even the ones that don’t puff up are still good enough to eat! In my whole lifetime, I have probably made more that didn’t puff up than did!