Saturday, October 18, 2008

By bread alone ... ?

Indian breads. A term that one sees on buffets in snooty hotels, next to a tired wicker basket of sullen black-faced naans and wilting phulkas. So very misleading, as I’ve found over the years. Indian cuisine is a melting pot with inputs from Portugal to Penang, from Isfahan to Istanbul, and if we look close there’s a variety of Indian bread from each region. I have been a bread freak right from my school-days - my rather well-leavened frame often prompted jibes of “double roti” - but I associated the term with buns, croissants, chewy brown bread, golden buttered toast, little realising that the luchi of Sunday breakfast and the paratha that encased my chicken roll were also breads. Even the neer dosa of Kerala and the thalipeeth of Maharashtra claim to be breads, though the former is not made from wheat and the latter is a little like a pancake.

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, Punjab’s answer to corn pone. Made from corn (makki) flour, it goes with sarson da saag the way Tristran goes with Ysolde. Or Dharam with Hema. Cardiac specialists owe large portions of their bank balances to the Punjabi habit of serving it with a “liddel” home-made butter, say, a fistful on each roti.

Fried breads are India’s curious celebration of cholesterol. The most common deep-fried bread is the ubiquitous puri, roundels of wheat flour dough rolled flat, moistened with oil and fried till they swell into spherical puffs. The Bengali version, luchi, is made with refined flour or maida and places an even greater premium on light fluffiness. The most decadent zamindars would eat only the papery top layer as a token of their refinement. I can certify that this evokes a general feeling of well-being which is utterly misleading since it is more likely to lead to heartburn and breathlessness. When stuffed with daal or matar paste, the puri / luchi becomes the daalpuri, radhabollobi or kachori (differentiated by the consistency and crispness of the fried dough).

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 Kashmir, where the dough is kneaded with ghee, sweetened, re-rolled and baked till it is a meal in itself. Shillong has its own version called the palmia, which is almost a Danish pastry. Another Kashmiri calorie bomb is the baqrkhani roti. More layered, flaky and unsweetened, this is the ideal staple for the Kashmiri wazwan or wedding feast, where the objective apparently is to ensure that the married couple receive an early inheritance. A lighter leavened version is the taftan, which is baked with a hint of saffron and cardamom. The stuffed prontha, heavy with butter and potatoes (or grated cauliflower or radish) is Punjab’s contribution to the Indian breakfast. The Malabari paratha or Kerala Porotta goes a step further – eggs are beaten into the dough and the roundels are stretched by hand and flipped, a little like classic pizza. (The Malaysian roti canai is similar in composition though it is made by rolling and not flipping the dough. Singapore’s roti prata is a standard paratha but made by flipping the dough, a sideshow in hundreds of street food joints.) Bengal has the Dhakai porota. Big, crisp, crunchy, flaky, this fast-vanishing variation is unusual in Bengali cuisine in that it is always accompanied by a vegetarian dish, usually chholaa’r daal.

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.

22 comments:

varali said...

What, no mention of radha ballabi?

purplesque said...

Technically, bread is made from a dough of flour and water. So a dosa that is made from a loose batter would be a pancake, not a bread, but a besani made from a stiff dough of gramflour and water would be bread. I don't think the flour has to come only from grains.

A great post from the other side in my feedreader. :) Did you actually do research on this?

km said...

We are SO not worthy. Brilliant post.

One form of roti which deserves a mention is "Kori Rotti", favored by Mangaloreans.

oxyacetelyne said...

dalpoori, radhabollobhi?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Varali, OA, updated and modified.

Purplesque, of course I had to research. This was actually an article for an in-flight magazine.
What's "the other side" of your feedreader?

KM, thanks, will include the Kori Rotti.

J.A.P.

purplesque said...

The 'not-really-related-to-food' side. You made a fine jump, though.

theemptyvessel said...

What about Phuchkaa? Aint they bread as well?

eve's lungs said...

What are you eating at the moment ?

ichatteralot said...

I sm now completely educated on breads :) Good reading material

ramesh said...

my mouth's watering now, alas no breads around for company

Hades said...

What got served with my meat was of little consequence to me till I entered college.

Not only was meat rationed to twice a week in my hostel, but the Paranthas and Puris were *gasp* made from aata.

Brilliant post, by the way.

Maybe a mention of the lachha parantha would have endeared it to me a bit more. Have eaten a fair bit of those.

The dough takes all manners of extraneous ingredients - eggs, ghee, milk and as is a rule in mughlai food, a touch of saffron. Cashew paste is always another healthy add-on, provided you don't have to send your son down to the grocery shop to get the cashews.

Balls of dough are then pressed on to each other and rolled, leading to flaky layers, hence the term lachha.

binerry said...

wow... I haven't eaten more than half the breads listed here... but I think you are missing Batura here

binerry said...

the there is rumali roti

binerry said...

and not to mention the very famous parotta in south.

sorry abt posting multiple comments

Zishaan said...

Naan?

Vinayak said...

Great read!
luchi is also popular in Kashmir specifically among Pandits and is served with Kehwa. Curiously, it is specially prepared during a festival celebrating the Holy Goddess at Khir Bhawani.

Neo said...

very informative :)

Nalbyuites said...

Great post. BTW, there's also this stuffed bread called 'Mughlai paratha'(used to eat a lot of these in my hometown of Bhilai). They came in veg/egg/chicken variants. Dunno about its origins but the only joint that sold these was a bong one named 'Ma Lokkhi'.

Sunil said...

JAP.....this post was foodie heaven. I'm almost depressed that I'll have to settle for frozen parathas for dinner.

Anonymous said...

There's also koki: http://sindhirasoi.com/2008/05/31/koki-2/

dodo:
http://sindhirasoi.com/2008/09/11/juar-jo-dodo/

http://sindhirasoi.com/2008/02/03/lolosweet-loli/
and
http://sindhirasoi.com/2008/10/07/a-fried-sweetlolo/

One in a Billion said...

Mouthwatering stuff, JAP-da :)

Minor quibble re. Gujju breads: the khakhra's 'umble cousin is the mathia (or mathiya). Mattha is a buttermilk-type drink favoured by Northern brethren.

Jane Sunshine said...

i enjoyed this glimpse into Indian bread world including the mention of Malaysian roti canai and singapore paratha which I always believe trace ancestry to their Indian bread cousins.