From India to Malaysia to the Caribbean, there are a thousand different flatbreads that go by the name roti, or rotti. Some are buttery and flaky; some are pockets that puff up during cooking. What they all have in common is deliciousness – and yes, you can make them at home!
“Anybody can do it!” says Melbourne’s Seema Choubey, of Divine Indian Cooking, who’s been teaching various Indian cooking classes, including a special Indian bread class, and is now also offering virtual classes via Zoom.
To help you nail the perfect roti at home, we asked Choubey and some other roti fans for their top tips.
A soft dough means a soft roti
“The softer the dough, the softer that roti will be,” says Choubey, who teaches an Indian roti, made with whole wheat flour, in her classes. “The dough has to be not too soft because if it is too soft, you can't roll it. And if it is too hard, then obviously the rotis will not become rotis, they will become like pappadums, or really chewy and you won't be able to eat it. So, the first rule is, you have to make a dough which is neither too soft nor too hard.”
Roti are usually a simple mix of flour, water, salt and butter, oil or milk.
It might take a try or two to figure out exactly how much water to add because as Peter Kuruvita points out when sharing his recipe for gothamba roti, flour can vary from place to place.
The key point we’d like to make here is DON’T WORRY. Think of your first go or two at roti as an investment in your future flatbread-making expertise.
And if you make a batch that’s too hard, that’s not a bad thing. Choubey says she often does exactly that in her classes, so students can see the difference in the result between a hard dough and a soft dough.
Stretched or sturdy?
The style of flatbread you’re making will affect the choice of flour and fat.
“Atta flour, which is basically whole wheat flour, is really good for making roti, and most Indians and a lot of the Northern Sri Lankans will only use atta flour, because the wholemeal flour is good for you and I think it tastes really nice as well,” says Kuruvita, when we chat to the chef, author and host of popular SBS shows including My Sri Lanka and Peter Kuruvita’s Coastal Kitchen. “But if you're going to do something where you are going to stretch it like a tablecloth, or like a gothamba roti, then you would use white flour. For a gothamba, you need to use white flour because atta won’t stretch well. You can’t get that beautiful paper-thin feel out of them.”
“Gothamba roti is one of my favourites – it’s the one that gets tossed and stretched,” he explains, The soft foldable bread is a street food favourite in Sri Lanka. It’s also delicious in kottu roti, a stir fry made with strips of roti.
The eggplant pickle-stuffed gothamba roti parcels Kuruvita shares in My Sri Lanka use butter or margarine in the dough – it holds together better for making filled roti – while in his book Lands of the Curry Leaf, he uses oil. Butter, oil or even margarine will all work, he explains when we ask which is best, but he finds oil gives a stretchier dough.
It's the key to these flipped and folded Sri Lankan veechu rotti (veechu translates to 'thrown' in Tamil):
There are many variations in recipes for Malaysia's wonderfully flaky, tearable roti canai. Clarified butter - ghee - is common, while other recipes use milk, or a combination of milk and butter.
Let it rest
After you’ve made the dough, let it sit. Seema Choubey rests hers under a damp towel – resting is number two of her three rules for success – while the dough for flaky roti canai-style breads is usually formed into balls, coated in oil and left to rest overnight. They are all aiming for the same result – the gluten developed during kneading will relax, and you’ll end up with a dough that’s easier to roll or stretch, and roti that are lovely and soft.
Don’t worry about the shape
“The third and very important part of making very good roti is even rolling,” says Choubey. “Don’t worry about the shape.”
“If you can roll it evenly, it will cook evenly. If you go after making it round, probably in some places you will make it thick and in other places, it will be thin, and then when you cook it, the thin parts will cook faster. Then you think that ‘oh this part is cooked’, but when you sit down to eat it, you will realise that other part, which was thicker, is not cooked well. We want roti which is evenly cooked! So, my focus on the students, when they do it, is to roll evenly. Don't worry about the shape and size.
“Ideally rotis are really soft and really thin, although in some areas of India they cook them a little bit thicker, depending on the cultural preferences of the region,” says Choubey, who grew up in Madhya Pradesh in central India. “But they are all cooked evenly, and so that’s the third very important step when you make rotis.”
Learning to flip? Try a tea towel
If you’ve watched anyone expertly flipping round of roti dough in the air, creating a paper-thin sheet ready to be folded and cooked into deliciously flaky roti, and thought “I’ll never do that”, our experts have some tips for you.
“Relax your hands,” says Darwin’s Siti Ahmad, who’s been making roti since she was 10. Ahmad often helps make the roti sold at Malaysian Taste, her mother Samiah Latiff’s popular stall at Darwin’s Sunday Nightcliff markets. “The way I started was using a tea towel. Just using the circular motions, without dough, until you figure it out,” says Ahmad, who learned how to make roti from her father, Kamal.
“My dad usually makes them, and whenever my dad’s not here, I help Mum out,” she says. “Mum makes them as well, but she’s mostly busy cooking all the other things.” In a busy week, the family will make up to 200 roti. “We wake up at 2.30 in the morning, just to make roti,” Ahmad says.
Their roti is a two-day process, with the dough for the flaky, square flatbreads started the day before, and then hundreds of balls of dough turned into roti in the early hours of the morning, ready to serve to hungry visitors at the market. One of the most popular items at their market stall is the beef rendang roti wrap, a twist on a traditional dish taught to Samiah by her mother. A rich beef curry, crunchy cucumber and satay sauce are wrapped up on one of their flaky roti – a great breakfast for fuelling market shopping! The dish was even featured in Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory - we have the recipe here so you can try it for yourself.
A two-step process can be easier when you are learning. Flatten it with hands or a rolling pin and then try tossing it. "Don't worry if it looks like a mess, it's meant to, " says Simon Goh reassuringly, in his recipe for roti canai.
And if you’re left-handed, see if you can find a left-handed roti maker to watch.
“The gothambas are the family favourite because everyone likes having a go at making them. It’s fun,” says Kuruvita. “It's funny, though, because it took me a long time to learn. Every time I went and watched somebody doing it, they were always right-handed, but it didn't click. I tried left-handed, and it didn't work. It wasn't until I saw a guy in Sri Lanka doing it and I said, ‘I'm left-handed’ and he said, ‘I'm left-handed!’. And then I looked, and said 'oh, it's a simple switch of which hand is up and which hand is down’. That makes all the difference when it comes to making that beautiful roti. And practice. Like everything, practice makes perfect.”
The final step in many roti recipes is to clap it between your hands, or crush it lightly, to relase some of the heat and steam and put the finishing touch on the flaky texture. Trinidad's 'buss up shut' takes that a step further, with the roti beaten with wooden spoons or sticks while cooking.
Pan or flame?
To make a puffed Indian-style roti you can use either a pan or flame, however, Choubey suggests beginners cook with a pan. “If you’re doing it with a flame, you have to be really fast!”, she says of the co-ordination required to quickly switch between rolling and cooking. “And while there’s a little bit of difference [in the result], it’s not a lot.”
And the puffing up? That should happen whether you’re cooking it in a hot pan or over a flame, she says. “If you have rolled it evenly, it will puff up,” although they still taste delicious even if they don’t puff up.
Roti dough makes the perfect canvas for all kinds of fillings, but if stuffed it might then have another name. “When we say roti, in an Indian context, it is a flatbread. There are variations, but we don’t call them roti - for example, if I stuffed that roti with potato or cottage cheese or a filling of peas, then I’d call it a paratha,” Choubey explains. Both the atta-flour based Indian style roti and the flaky Malaysian style can be just as handy for wrapping and filling as they are for swiping up every bit of a delicious curry.
A deliciously crunchy and savoury example: this Malaysian murtabak, filled with spiced minced meat and cabbage.
You could also try a sweet take, with David Thompson’s Thai-style banana roti, or Ahmad’s suggestion: “Sometimes I have it with Nutella!” Just spread, roll, and enjoy.
However, you make or stuff your roti, it’s sure to bring you joy. “It’s really fairly easy to make if you keep those steps in mind. From the last five years of my experience [teaching], I’m confident that anybody can do it,” Choubey says.
Clap-hand roti is great to mop up tasty curries and sauces. Clapping helps release the air pockets and makes these Caribbean flatbreads lovely and light and flaky.
Roti are really fun to make. The secret to success is leaving the dough to rest for long enough before shaping.
Originally a simple man’s food to help get through the day, this quick and filling dish hails from Mumbai, as the name would suggest. It is an amazing snack for those on the run — spicy, tasty and so easy to make.
“The roti in Barbados are usually stuffed with chicken or lamb and potato, but I wanted a filling that was crunchy and fresh, yet still had a Caribbean influence. The secret of this curry filling is to not over-cook the pumpkin. It should be tender but not too soft - you want the roti to have some crunch when you bite into it. The curry is also great served with grilled lamb, goat or chicken.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
This dish is commonly eaten for dinner in Sri Lanka, where the egg may be substituted for meat, such as beef or chicken.
This flaky, buttery bread is a staple in Malaysia’s Mamak stalls. Use it to mop up a modern favourite – butter prawns.