As exotic as living abroad as foreigners in India has been, there are times when it’s just life, like anywhere else. Sometimes opportunities come up and simply because there’s too much regular stuff to do, like grocery shopping, helping kids with homework or making dinner for a family of five, we must decline. “Next time!” we say happily, luxuriating in the fact that we’re here nearly a year.
Well, it’s now late March. We’re running out of “next times.”
I went through a period of intense homesickness awhile ago and am now finding myself in a near panic that we have so little time left.
So I was nothing short of overjoyed when I went over to my friend Nikhat’s the other day for tea and she told me we were going to make roti. Learning to make proper roti, or Indian unleavened flatbread, is something I have yet to get down with any proficiency or skill. I was thrilled.
Nikhat is a colleague of hubby Brian’s and a video professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communications. She’s competent and no-nonsense. When she showed me how to wrap a sari, she made me do it over and over, to make sure I’d really learned it. I knew making roti was going to be a similar experience–this woman would teach me, alright! A working mother of two hungry teenage boys, Nikhat also knows how to feed a crowd.
She already had the dough made, so our lesson in her kitchen began with the actual technique of cooking. Roti dough is nothing but atta, or flour; a little bit of salt; and enough water only to the reach the correct consistency for a nice, soft dough. I have tried to make roti, or chapati as it’s thinner version is also called, by myself at our home here in Paradise. It turned out thick and chewy, and somewhat raw in the middle. My dal, or thin lentil soup, passed the family taste test, but you simply must have roti to dip into it!
Roti sops up delicious juices, or gravies as they say here, from various curries. You can place drier foods within a roti, such as a kabob made out of chicken, mutton or even beef if you can find it, roll it up and eat on the go. The flatbread is used as a spoon, since the traditional way is to eat with only your hands. There are various different kinds of Indian flatbreads (one of my favorites, naan, is made with yeast and is actually baked), but roti is the staple.
I thought I’d do a lot of Indian cooking during our time here. I’ve learned a few things, but the truth is Rachel, our 8-year-old daughter, doesn’t like Indian cuisine. She’s skinny enough as it is without getting at least one decent meal a day at home, so I’ve ended up cooking more American-style food here than I ever thought I would. The rest of us love Indian food. Rory and Robin both lamented the other day, “Mom…you can’t go back to Alaska without knowing how to make chapati. I mean, you’ve been here almost a year.”
Geez. Talk about a guilt trip.
Luckily, my visit to Nikhat’s put me back into the good graces of my teenage boys. They were just as happy as I was for the impromptu roti lesson.
There are several secrets to making good roti, according to Nikhat. One is you must have a good, heavy bottomed pan, preferably with a non-stick surface. The pan must be dry and clean; don’t use oil. The flame or temperature must be about medium–not too high or too low.
You take a pinch of dough (the size can vary; golf-ball sized will do) and roll into a ball. Have a little dish of flour at the ready, and coat the ball in flour.
Sprinkle some atta on the rolling surface, flatten the ball into a disc, and begin rolling it out, turning the disc to make sure it becomes round and to make sure it’s not sticking to the board. If it does, sprinkle more flour on the surface.
The disc needs to be very thin, similar to a tortilla. Check the heat of the pan and make sure it’s not too hot and not too cool. Take the disc and gently transfer it from hand to hand, brushing off all the extra flour.
Place the disc directly onto the pan, being careful edges don’t fold in, etc. Cook the first side until you see some small bubbles, or pockets in the bread, forming. Flip over to the second side using tongs.
Once the second side is done (it only take a minute or so on each side if your heat is correct), take the tongs, lift the roti out of the pan, remove the pan and quickly place the roti, same side down, directly onto the flame. The roti will puff up within just a few seconds. Turn with the tongs and do the same thing on the other side. When finished, put the roti into a basket that you’ve lined with clean dry linen towels. Keep them covered while you complete cooking all the roti. The air will escape from the puffed roti, but it will still be lighter and airier than a roti that hasn’t puffed at all.
How to puff up the roti if you only have an electric stove top? Once you see small bubbles forming on the second side, press very gently with a clean towel (paper or linen cloth; it doesn’t matter) in between the bubbles. This should force puffing to occur, though not to the same dramatic extent as you’ll have with the flame. Press in several spots so the roti puffs evenly.
The dough recipe can vary depending on the quantity you want, but here’s a basic rule of thumb for about six or so roti: 1 1/2 c. wheat flour; about a half teaspoon of salt; and only enough water to make a soft dough.
The trick is in the kneading. You must knead very thoroughly, and add water only as necessary by dipping your hand into a container of water, not by pouring water into the bowl (you can pour in the beginning, but be careful–only small amounts at a time). The dough shouldn’t be too sticky or too dry, but soft and pliant. You then let the dough sit aside for at least 15-20 minutes before cooking. If you refrigerate the dough to use later, take it out for an hour or so before cooking so that it’s soft and at room temperature for rolling.
Like making anything from scratch, practice makes perfect. Nikhat sent me home with some dough so that I could practice again right away. She told me to take pictures of both the process and finished product to email to her, so she could judge if I did it right.
I fully expect the professor to give me a grade!
A video showing the master and the pupil can be found here:
I made roti on my own, with Nikhat’s dough, the next night. Some pics of that are here. Also passing along a couple recipes because of course, you can’t just eat roti—you need some stuff to dunk it into, wrap around, etc.!
I found this chicken curry recipe a number of months ago. I can’t find the website again, but it was a food blog from India.
Rajee’s Chicken Curry
2 pounds chicken, cut into 2 inch pieces (I go to the chicken guy in Aundh)
4 small red onions
2 small tomatoes
7 cloves garlic
1 sprig curry leaf (I used two, because my curry plant is small right now)
1 tsp. turmeric powder
1 Tbs. coriander powder
1 ½ Tbs. garam masala
Heat some oil and add the curry leaf. After 30 seconds add onions, garlic, salt and spices and sauté until translucent. Add tomatoes, followed by chicken. Add 1 c. or so water (I added two). Cover and simmer 30 minutes over medium heat. Serve with basmati rice.
*I traveled through Kolhapur and had some delicious dal that I’ve tried to replicate, but can’t find the right spices. While I’m calling this Kolhapuri dal, it’s not really because I just ended up using chili powder. Shhh…our secret.
½ c. red lentils, boiled
Salt to taste
1 tomato, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. oil
½ tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp. turmeric powder
1/8 tsp. funugreek seeds (I didn’t have, so left out)
¼ tsp. asafoetida (this is an Indian spice that I don’t have yet, so I left out)
Cook the lentils. Heat oil in a saucepan, add all the spices. Add garlic and onions. Saute five minutes. Add tomatoes and Kolhapur masala (In my dreams…I haven’t been able to find it, and have been told one can only get it in Kolhapur. So I just used some chili powder). Saute five minutes more. Add drained and slightly mashed lentils, salt and some water per your preference (I like dal a bit thicker than most Indians apparently do…not sure how much water I added. Maybe 1 ½ cups). Bring to a boil and then lower heat, simmering for 10 minutes.