Pucca sahibs would probably limit the term to food made from grain flour (usually wheat), leavened with yeast and baked in an oven. Fiddlesticks. Or rather, Ey Mamu! The majority of Indian breads are unleavened, some are fried or even roasted and many are made from rice gruel or even lentil pastes. The more the merrier, say I. Man does not live by bread alone, but (as anybody on the Atkins Diet will vouch) life is pretty bleak without it.
First, the Big Question. Is it bread if it’s not made from grain? Check out pashti from Arcot in Tamil Nadu, rice flour dumplings pan-fried in ghee and eaten with chutneys or spicy meat. Or pesarattu from Andhra Pradesh, which is made from moong daal and fried on a griddle. Or, indeed, the entire family of dosai and their variants, from Kerala’s appam to uttapam and neer dosa. If these are dismissed as more pancakes than bread, where would you place thalipeet? The dough for this Maharashtrian favourite may contain – among others - beans, wheat, rice, onion, jaggery, vegetables and spices. It’s kneaded and rolled, unlike a crepe or pancake, but it’s not baked and it isn’t wholly wheat. So is it bread?
Most Indian breads are flatbreads, rolled from dough and roasted over an open fire or baked in a tandoor. In the far north, we have the chewy Ladakhi cambir or khambiri, dabbed with butter and eaten with home-made apricot jam or with tea. Kashmiris, surprisingly, eat more rice but have a wide variety of breads. Tsot and tsochvoru are small round breads, topped with poppy and sesame seeds and traditionally washed down with salt tea. Lavas is a cream coloured unleavened bread, probably derived from the Armenian Lahvash or Armenian cracker bread, a soft, thin flatbread sometimes sprinkled with toasted sesame or poppy seeds.
In the heartland, the humble chapatti is part of Indian history. It was carried from village to village and used as a signal before the rising of 1857. It’s also comfort food for millions, especially when hot off the fire with a dab of butter melting in the middle. It has a number of variants, all round flat unleavened breads made from grains other than wheat. The bhakhri, made from jowar, bajra or even (in Karnataka) from rice flour, is a staple in the western states. The jolada rotti of Karnataka is made from sorghum. Both these variations keep well and are good travelling food, usually eaten with pulse curries (daal, jhunka) or with chutneys such as thecha, a paste of chillies that can set fire to paper at 50 paces. The rock star in this category (or bhangra rapper?) is makki di roti,
Fried breads are
Parathas are the big brothers of puris. They range from the comparatively innocuous ones that are just thick rotis with a gloss of ghee to the utterly sinful sheermal from
Some North Indian breads are stand-alones, like the Gujarati khakra and mattha. Light, flaky, almost pastry-like, these are spiced and roasted rather than fried, giving them a long shelf-life and making ideal snacks. Rajasthan’s baati is richer. These baked dumplings are quick-fried for a crisp outer crust and most famously eaten with daal and churma. And of course gobs of ghee. The Bihari version, litthi, evokes nostalgia in a zillion engineering institutions and staff colleges.
Leavened sahib bread is not unknown, as the numerous bakeries in Bandra attest. The real legacy, however, is not English but Portuguese. The poder or traditional baker (though the term is also used for the delivery man) is a part of Goan tradition, his honking announcing the morning delivery of pao, soft square bread that fills the stomach and gladdens the palate. Pao, ideal for mopping up the last drops of tongue-tingling curry, is the accompaniment to spicy vindaloo and sorpotel. Mumbai’s pao bhaaji can only be a wan poor cousin! Pokshie and katre are other avatars of pao, distinguished by their shapes (pokshie is also more crusty). My Goan friends swear that the secret ingredient is the use of toddy instead of yeast for leavening. Poie or poee is Goan brown bread, fat, hollow and often “butterfly” shaped so that it can be broken by hand into four pieces. Generations of grandmothers swear that it is “ideal for diabetics”, an assertion supported by modern medical science.
Man does not live by bread alone? Enough already! Pass the butter.