Ever thought, as you tore off a piece of a flaky, buttery roti and popped it into your mouth, or scooped up some dahl with a charry-spotted, rough-edged paratha, that really, you could just live on the bread alone?
Well, perhaps we can’t really JUST live on the chewy, flaky, nutty, layered, leavened and non-leavened deliciousness that is the family of Indian-Asian breads, but we can eat roti and its delicious relatives for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (And if you’ve never tried making it here’s the good news: a stack of roti or paratha or kulcha is easier than you might think.)
While flatbreads are indeed fab for mopping up a curry or bowl of dahl, they also make a delicious basis for a million other meals: wrapped around your scrambled eggs for a make-ahead breakfast on the go, or turned into a decadent dessert, in David Thompson’s fruit-stuffed, condensed milk-drizzled Thai banana roti. You can even cut leftover roti into strips and turn them into a fantastic Sri Lankan stir fry.
Here are some of our favourite recipes, and plus expert tips for getting the crispy/chewy/flaky textures in whatever bread you particularly fancy, from slashing your paratha while cooking (thanks Anjum Anand!) to pillowy blistered naan, sans tandoor (genius, Sasha Gill!).
On a roll with roti (and paratha)
For restaurateur Sarah Todd, a simple homemade roti is a regular for weekend breakfasts with her seven-year-old son, Phoenix. “It's Phoenix's favorite. He loves roti, he loves having that for breakfast.” The pair often have roti for Sunday breakfast “although if I made it every day, he would have it every day!” Todd also likes to make paratha at home (one of India’s most popular breads, it gets its chewy-but-crisp texture from the folding and layering of the dough with ghee).
Todd, who’s had the enviable task of eating hundreds of breads in Indian as menu research for her two Indian restaurant ventures (see the latest in My Second Restaurant in India), doesn’t use a recipe for her roti and paratha - “I do it by feel” – and says these two are great for doing at home because “they're the ones that you don't really need any equipment for. You don't need a tandoor or a big flat pan or anything like that. You just use a regular pan.”
Parathas are one of northern India’s favourite breakfasts, and part of the appeal of these layered breads is their enormous versatility. Make a basic wholemeal paratha (like this one from The Chefs’ Line contestant Shruti Kohli) and serve it with whatever condiments and extras you fancy. Make triangular paratha for something that will look stunning on a shared platter. Got some leftover dal? Turn it into a meal by stuffing it into homemade dal ka paratha. Or wake up your mouth with a methi paratha, spiced with ginger, chilli, cumin, turmeric and dried methi (frungreek leaves).
Cookbook author and tv host Anjum Anand has some a great tip for making paratha with that flaky but crisp texture. One of the secrets to her recipe is to cut tiny slashes all over the surface of the flatbread while its cooking, and repeat it again after flipping the bread to cook the other side. “this will help it crisp up,” she says. And if you long for the deliciousness of paratha but don’t eat dairy, good news. “You can make them with vegetable oil, butter or ghee - needless to say the butter and ghee ones have more flavour but the ones made with oil are also delicious,” Anand says.
As for roti, and the often interchangeably named chapati, some say boiling water is part of the secret to wonderfully soft, tearable roti (hers certainly look the goods!); others say giving the dough a rest before rolling out is the key.
While a lot of Indian and Asian flatbreads are unleavened, deliciously chewy naan are traditionally made from a yeasted dough and cooked in a dome-topped tandoor oven. But you don’t need to install a tandoor to make naan.
In her brand new cookbook Jackfruit & Blue Ginger: Asian favourites, made vegan, blogger Sasha Gill explains her secret is a two-step cooking process. “Naan breads are traditionally baked in a clay oven, giving them their distinctive burnished exterior and fluffy interior. To get a similar result at home, I use a combination of baking in the oven and charring over an open flame.” Gill, who grew up in Singapore and is now studying in medicine in London, is of Indian and Eurasian heritage. “When nostalgia hits me, I always cook Indian food. To me, Indian food means comfort. It means family. It means home,” she says. Get Gill’s naan recipe, with variations for plain, garlic and peshwari naan, here.
If you’d like to really get your naan nerd on, from flour types to whether adding eggs is a good idea (apparently not!), check this article by UK food writer Felicity Cloak.
This is where stuff happens
Meet the Amritsari kulcha. New Delhi Television says of this popular street food from the Punjabi city of Amritsar, “The crisp stuffed bread oozing with butter is one of Punjab’s best culinary gifts to the food world.”
“They are crisp outside and soft within with lots of distinct flavours and textures,” says Anjum Anand. “Eating them fresh on a bustling street with a cup of masala tea was one of my most memorable Indian breakfast experiences.”
Kulcha-style breads aren’t just found in Amritsari, of course, and they can be plain or stuffed, but the Amritsari kulcha with spiced potato stuffing is a street food classic. Anjum Anand’s version can be cooked in a tawa or frying pan, or on a barbecue.
When we talked about roti earlier, we were talking about the familiar, simple flatbread made with flour and water, perhaps salt and oil or butter. But there are plenty of variations, made with added ingredients, or cooked differently, or rolled more thinly – such as rumali or roomali roti, aka handkerchief roti, where the dough is rolled super thin.
Now some of these take practice, but if at first you don’t succeed, take heart from Sarah Todd’s learning curve.
In her new series, My Second Restaurant in India, she has a go at making karari roti. It’s a big, crisp bowl-shaped bread cooked on a dome-shaped surface. Let’s just say that Sarah’s first go is not “holey” successful:
But eventually, she got the knack. “It took me a while … Hours of just doing it over and over and over!” she tells us.
And when you have extra bread…
We know. Extra bread? Not usually such a thing, eh. But if you do – or you make extra, especially – then how about using them to wrap a Mumbai frankie (try this one, with five variations on the filling, from spiced mashed potato to haloumi, or this paratha frankie, wrapped around fried paneer, carrot and cucumber), make a lamb kathi roll, or shred the bread and make kottu roti (roti stirfry! Try this seafood, carrot and cabbage version or this vegetarian version).
My Second Restaurant in India now has all episodes streaming on SBS On Demand.
This is a traditional Indian bread made with flour and ghee that is deep-fried. As soon as it hits the oil, it should puff up.
Often served at weddings and celebrations, this bread pudding is a specialty of the Hyderabadi region and sees pan-fried bread slices soaked in cardamom-scented syrup. The name is derived from ‘double roti’ which was a term used for bread during the British colonial era. You will need a 2 L serving dish for this recipe.