• Naan bread (pictured) or roti? We explore the differences. (Tammi Kwok)Source: Tammi Kwok
Flatbreads are an indispensable part of Indian cuisine, but did you know over 30 varieties exist?
Melissa Woodley

26 Oct 2021 - 9:42 AM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2021 - 9:44 AM

--- Discover the comforts of Indian home cooking with Adam D'Sylva, Helly Raichura and Sandeep Pandit on India Unplated, Thursdays 8.00pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, articles and more. ---


Bread is as integral to an Indian meal as a piece of cutlery is on an Australian dinner table, and there are different varieties, depending on which region you're in.

But what these breads have in common is their ability to sop up leftover curries and sauces, wrap around kebabs or be stuffed with vegetables and spices. 

Naan and roti are the two most conventional Indian flatbreads, which are staples in North Indian cuisine. They may be eaten interchangeably but differ in more ways than you'd expect, as outlined below.

Flour type

SBS Food's India Unplated co-host, Sandeep Pandit, says that the fundamental difference between roti and naan is the type of flour they contain.

"In roti, it's always wholemeal that we call 'atta' in Hindi…Naan on the other hand is made with 'maida', which is the Hindi word for plain flour."

Naan breads

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.

Maida flour is refined and powdery, which creates a denser, pillowy bread. The leavening process also breaks down the gluten and contributes to naan's soft texture. For this reason, it's more time-consuming to make than roti, which is unleavened and results in a coarser, less flexible bread.

Cooking method

Siddharth Kalyanaraman, head chef at Foreign Return in Sydney's Surry Hills, explains that you can  make naan by mixing a little bit of milk, a little bit of yeast, sugar and salt. "The sugar helps to get the yeast going.

"Then mix this into the refined flour, knead it until soft, and leave it for about 25 to 30 minutes to let it all come together."

Once rested, the naan is traditionally cooked in a tandoori oven that's powered by charcoal or woodfire. In bakeries, the dough is hurled against the oven's walls, where it sticks and bakes to achieve an outer crispness. 

"Naan is more of a restaurant thing," Kalyanaraman adds. "You wouldn't make naan for everyday dinner because not everyone has a tandoori oven at home."

The ultimate guide to making roti at home
Whether you want a flaky roti canai or Indian pocket that puffs, here's what you need to know.

While naan is reserved for special occasions, roti is a household staple. 

"It is much simpler to make using just whole wheat flour, salt, and water," Kalyanaraman says. 

Spiced potato-stuffed Amritsari kulcha bread

Amritsar has a particular flaky, tandoor-cooked bread stuffed with potatoes or paneer, onions and spices. It is one of the dishes I sought out in Amritsar and, when you eat the real version, you understand why they are eaten there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

These three ingredients are combined to form a dough, which is rolled out and cooked on a flat griddle or tawa until brown and blistered. This same method is applied to make chapati, another unleavened, wholewheat bread (and technically, a type of roti).

"The fundamental difference between the roti and the chapati is that you finish both sides of the chapati with fat, and then cook it again on the griddle," Kalyanaraman explains.

"So, if you're making a roti, and you apply some oil on one side and cook it again on the griddle, it becomes a chapati."

Different flavours

The pillowy texture and thickness of naan makes it ideal for housing a variety of stuffing and spices. Many enjoy it plain or brushed with butter or garlic.

Popular stuffed varieties include keema (minced mutton), paneer, Amritsari (potatoes) and peshwari (fruit and nut).

Indian spiced minced lamb (keema)

This super versatile dish is best eaten with Indian breads, such as naan or roti, or any flat bread. It can also be made into a pizza, with a touch of mozzarella. Delicious!

Roti also has many types, such as fluffy tandoori roti, which is cooked in the tandoor, rumali roti, which is rolled thin and wrapped around kebabs, or missi roti, made using chickpea flour. 

Whether you choose roti or naan, they are the ultimate sidekick to any curry and the building block for any Indian meal. 

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.

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