Give Us Our Daily Indian Bread

I did something this weekend I've always wanted to do: I made Indian flat bread. I know, that's like saying I prepared "fish;" there are more types of Indian bread than you can count on both hands, an extensive umbrella category that includes north-south India variations as well as immigrant versions in neighboring Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore, and further afield in Guyana and Trinidad, in the eastern Caribbean.

Freshly-griddled roti ready for supper. (Kim O'Donnel)

For most Westerners, Indian bread means naan, the pillowy leavened rounds baked in a tandoor oven, which, according to Madhur Jaffrey in "From Curries to Kebabs," is a relatively recent addition to the ancient tradition of Vedic breads. "Delhi and most of India knew little of the tandoor or the naan until after the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947," writes Jaffrey. "At that time refugees from western Punjab came bearing portable ovens to make their daily bread."

Today's focus is on roti, one of several types of more traditional unleavened whole-wheat breads (versus naan, which is made from white flour and leavened either with a starter or with yeast), which, depending on the country and the cook, can be as thin as a "skin" or soft and pliable, closer to a pita. I would define Jaffrey's version, below, as a roti-chapati hybrid -- chapatis traditionally are made from very finely milled whole wheat "chapati flour" and tend to be thin and papery. Jaffrey's dough includes yogurt, which yields a softer result.

I have always wanted to see for myself just how easy (or not) Indian bread could be to make in my own kitchen. Unlike Western-style leavened loaves, this roti requires very little resting time, as little as 30 minutes. Translation: You can have homemade unleavened whole-wheat Indian bread ready for supper in an hour. If that sounds reasonable to you, then let's get this roti party started!

I tried my first batch on Saturday night with my friends D., C., and their two hairless Mexican dogs as an accompaniment to a pot of cilantro chicken curry. After griddling each piece of dough individually, D. transferred the rotis, one by one, to the microwave, where she "cooked" them for about 30 seconds to allow for a quick steam and resulting puff. As with fresh tortillas, the rotis like the enveloping warmth of a tea towel, which keeps their unleavened selves from getting hard.

We were delighted with the results, and because the dough was so easy to put together, I made a second batch last night to go with a chickpea curry (yes, I'll share the spicy curry details this week because it is too darn good to keep to myself -- and you can use canned chickpeas!). Once again, the dough came together in just 15 minutes, and I had beautifully griddled rounds in time for supper.

Honestly, I expected this to be a more elaborate project, requiring more of my energy and wits. Get out those cast-iron skillets and see what my fussin' is all about.

Recipe below the jump.

Today's Eco-Bite: Last week, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its national list of farmers markets, which has a new Web address. This list includes non-USDA-sponsored markets.

Madhur Jaffrey's Whole-Wheat "Roti"
Adapted from "From Curries to Kebabs" by Madhur Jaffrey

1 cup whole-wheat flour, plus more for dusting (I used white wheat flour with success)
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon plain whole-fat yogurt
1/2 cup warm water, minus 1 tablespoon
butter or ghee for serving (optional)

Combine flour, salt, baking soda and yogurt in a mixing bowl with a rubber spatula or with your hands, making sure ingredients are integrated. Add warm water, mixing into a soft dough.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead (press, fold, turn) for about 10 minutes. Dough will be soft and somewhat springy. Place dough in a bowl covered with a damp towel. Allow to sit for at least 30 minutes (it's okay to leave it sit for longer, if necessary).

Heat a cast-iron skillet (at least 9 inches in diameter) or a tava (aka tawah), a slightly concave disc-shaped griddle. Allow it to get hot.

Divide dough into four balls. Work with each ball one at a time, keeping the remaining balls covered. Dust work surface with flour and roll out ball into a six-inch round. Pick up roti and slap between your palms to dust off extra flour. Slap onto hot cooking surface. Cook for five seconds. Flip it over. Cook second side for five seconds. Continue to flip on each side at least six times.

Place roti in a microwave oven and cook it for 30 seconds or until slightly puffed. Remove and keep covered in a tea towel. You may add butter or ghee at this time.

Keep pan hot; if necessary, wipe surface with a slightly damp paper towel to remove remaining flour. Roll out second dough ball and repeat process.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 7, 2008; 10:12 AM ET Bread , Discoveries
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"I tried my first batch on Saturday night with my friends D., C., and their two hairless Mexican dogs as an accompaniment to a pot of cilantro chicken curry."

Well, how were the dogs as an accompaniment to the curry?

I imagine being hairless made prep easier.

Posted by: M Street | April 7, 2008 10:38 AM

I'm afraid these look nothing like the rotis my mother and grandmother made!! Yours are much, much thicker, for one thing.
But that's OK -- probably just regional differences between Jaffrey's Kashmiri-Delhi family and mine, from other parts of North India. I know rotis made in the US were never the same as those in India, because of the differences in the flour. They were also cooked over open flame after initial cooking on the tava.

Posted by: cc | April 7, 2008 10:38 AM

Kim, what are your thoughts on using Greek yogurt? Or do you think it would it be too thick?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 11:00 AM

I have to echo cc's comment. Those roti are nothing like the ones my mother's makes. Hers are thin and papery. And definitely no yogurt.

Posted by: Little Red | April 7, 2008 11:01 AM

Cc, Little Red: Lighten up! As I mentioned, this is a hybrid -- and as you'll notice Jaffrey calls them "roti" -- in quotes so as to differentiate them from authentic papery thin roti.
The Greek yogurt is fine -- used it for my second version.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 7, 2008 11:04 AM

Hi Kim

I don't own a microwave oven. Is this step absolutely necessary? Is there a substitute?


Posted by: no micro | April 7, 2008 11:19 AM

Will a regular (or non-stick) pan work instead of the skillet? Also, should I heat it up over high heat, medium-high or medium?

Posted by: Pan or skillet? | April 7, 2008 11:29 AM

No Micro: Here's what Yamuna Devi suggests in her breads chapter in "The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking": "Flatbreads should be held a little above a gas burner; rest them on either a metal cake rack, smooth round tongs or a chapati rack. To make a chapati rack that works remarkably well, bend the rounded corners of a metal coat hanger down about four inches to form a horseshoe, the neck becomes a handle. the rack easily holds up to a 10-inch flatbread over the heat."

Pan or skillet: Don't use a nonstick. Heat up your cast-iron over medium-high, closer to high, and adjust as necessary. You want the pan really hot.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 7, 2008 11:35 AM

I echo the comments on the vast difference between the Jaffrey version and anything i've seen in India or Indian-american homes. but i suppose anything that will help people understand that not all indians eat naan is a good thing.
Roti are always thin, thinner than tortillas even. The microwave step is interesting though. usually if you've rolled the roti properly and properly cooked them, they'll puff up nicely on their own, but sometimes, if the dough or your technique is no good they don't, so the microwave might be something to try then.
also, i wonder about the flipping at least 6 times thing--in my experience, the more you flip, the less tender the roti end up, and my mother and grandmother would never flip more than once for this reason.

Posted by: nva | April 7, 2008 11:49 AM

echoing nva's comments on flipping "rotis".
No more than 1 flip or you'll end up with a "pappad"

Posted by: lifelong | April 7, 2008 1:30 PM

as usual, fascinating comments too! definitely want to try these, authentic or no they look delicious -- will limit my flipping. Thanks for sharing, Kim.

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | April 7, 2008 1:53 PM

Re "these are a hybrid." If anything, maybe they are a hybrid of roti and naan -- chapatis are also thin and virtually indistinguishable from roti.

But I agree with nva that anything that gets folks to appreciate the "non-naan" world of Indian breads, which is what most Indians eat, is a good thing!

By the way, many (perhaps most?) Indian stores sell refrigerated parathas and rotis. I have no idea where they are made, but they are often just wrapped in plastic wrap (i.e., not professionally packaged), and can be very good, depending on the store.

Posted by: cc | April 7, 2008 2:54 PM

Thanks, Kim, for this post. I have begun dabbling in making bread by hand in the past month or two. This sounds like an interesting change of pace. Perhaps some of the commenters who have said this is not authentically Indian, or not what Mom made, can offer us recipes or recommendations as well.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 3:30 PM

Hello Kim

Over the years I've spent quite a lot of time in India. Best roti/chapati, hands down, were in the house of good friends who live in Noida (Delhi suburb). While my hostess worked with the houseboy to make the meal, it was his job to make the thinnest chapatis while we ate. He would deposit freshly-made hot & puffy chapatis on our plates as we finished their predecessors. In restaurants a wad of chapatis is put on the table swathed in a napkin. While they're certainly edible, they lack the savour of those just made.

Posted by: David Lewiston | April 7, 2008 3:30 PM

I make chapatis pretty regularly, and you're right that it's not that hard! That microwave instruction sounds really strange. I'll have to give it a try next time.

To get my breads to puff, I use a kitchen towel to gently tap the surface of the bread while it's in the pan. When an air bubble forms, gently press it so the bubble expands to the rest of the bread. Voila, a nice puffy chapati!

Posted by: az | April 7, 2008 5:04 PM

Baking soda? Yogurt? Microwave? These are not roties. The roti dough is simply water and flour, not even salt. They are then done on the tava and then directly on the flame (with tongs of course). And as David Lewiston says, they go directly from the flame to the plate. No towels. The cook has to work very quickly, and that is why making roties is not such an easy task. I have been cooking all kinds of food for at least 10 years now, but still can't make them as good as my mom's.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 7:41 PM

Can't we talk about something more interesting? Like apple sausage pie! Sorry, I'm reading a novel that's set in 1820s England.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 6:49 AM

For the reader who wanted a more "at home" recipe, here's my mother's recipe:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup water heated in the microwave to almost-boiling
1/2 tbsp oil

1. Knead the above ingredients together, cover, then let sit for at least 30 minutes (but an hour is better).
2. Roll into 1-inch balls and roll flat and paper-thin (the more even they are rolled, the more it will puff up).
3. Cook on a non-stick pan on medium-high heat until cooked (once on each side is enough).

This may not be truly authentic, but it is how my mother has adapted to the "western" kitchen.

Posted by: PG | April 8, 2008 9:42 AM

I have to agree with PG...although in Kim's defense she did get it from a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook. I always thought Jaffrey cooked for Europeans, i.e. making changes to traditional recipes that would appeal to a European palette. Not necessarily authentic Indian "Gharr ka khanna" food...

But that's okay. =) I love Pad Thai from Tara Thai and I'm pretty sure real Thai people think it's terrible!! =)) Hee Hee!

Posted by: Madrasy | April 8, 2008 10:06 AM

Baking soda for roti??? Never heard of it. People do use yogurt but then that is called 'batora' not roti. Oil, maybe. To puff up, my mom says, if you cannot roll the roti under the rolling pin it 'll never puff up. If you can roll it uniformly thin(for that it has to be knead right) it 'll puff up on the tava.

Posted by: Papiya | April 8, 2008 10:26 AM

Very true that most Indians eat whole wheat rotis or chapatis daily as opposed to naan.Thanks for highlighting that fact. I make chapatis daily, learnt from Mom and there is defintely a technique which comes with practice to make soft,thin chapatis which puff nicely. The real roti or chapati dough is just whole wheat flour, water and salt. While making chapati dough add a couple teaspoons oil to make the chapatis tender. Also chapati and roti are different, there is a difference in how you roll and heat them. While rolling chapatis you fold the rolled circle twice so as to make it into a triangle and then the triangle is rolled again into a thin flat circle. Due to the air trapped while folding, the chapatis puff up nicely.So chapatis are little difficult to make compared to roti. Also the roti is heated on tava and open flame, but chapati is only done on tava(griddle) and little oil is applied while it's still on tava. None of them require a microwave.

Posted by: vscIndian | April 8, 2008 10:32 AM

Also limit the number of flips, max 2 flips else the roti/chapati will become less tender.

Posted by: vscIndian | April 8, 2008 10:35 AM

Is it ok to 2% yogurt?

Posted by: mmh | April 8, 2008 10:43 AM

authentic rotis have no baking soda, no yoghurt and use a kind of whole wheat flour thats ground finer than the whole wheat flour found in grocery stores (the indian flour is called atta).
they are simple in terms of ingredients but require some practice because the dough has to be kneaded very well (for the gluten to form that allows the rotis/chapattis to rise without any additional leavening agent). In addition, they need to be allowed to rest (also for gluten formation), and rolled out paper thin, as has been pointed out in comments above.
for the best results, rotis are placed on a hot griddle and turned ONCE on each side until bubbles form and then put directly on the flame for a second (this is when they really puff up). But in order for the bubbles to form and for it to puff up, it has to be kneaded well and allowed to rest for 30 minutes.
the rotis in the picture are way too thick and look nothing real traditional rotis. i am surprised they came from a madhur jaffrey book.

Posted by: ad78 | April 8, 2008 11:44 AM

As a Jamaican whose family descends from India I can say that although they are a bit thick, these roti do look similar to the "roti" made by my grandparents and by many Indian immigrants in the Caribbean. We do use baking powder (not soda) and salt, but not yogurt. We also wrap roti in towels, but I haven't ever heard of the microwave trick. Of course Indians have been in the Caribbean for generations and I'm sure the recipes have been adapted. Give Kim a break people, I think she made it pretty clear that this recipe is not for "traditional" roti, whatever that may mean to you.

Posted by: nucsme | April 8, 2008 12:29 PM

I am familiar with Caribbean-style rotis, which I know to be thin as a tortilla, large, and to include ground chickpeas, which lend a more substantial character to the finished product. My memory of making them (once) was that they required a tremendous amount of elbow grease and still did not turn out as thin and pliable as those made by professionals.

Posted by: SH | April 8, 2008 12:58 PM

Since some of the commenters think Jaffrey caters too much to a European sensibility, can anyone suggest an alternative cook book?

Posted by: adam | April 8, 2008 1:25 PM

Can we have some more people chime in and tell us how "un-authentic" this recipe is?

Not sure I quite grasp it yet.

Posted by: Stewed | April 8, 2008 1:52 PM

I'm Guyanese of Indian descent. We have sada roti which is much like described except we use white self raising flour (so no salt or soda) and no yogurt. My mother taught me the microwave trick (ain't technology grand) otherwise you'd have cook on the tava for at least 5 minutes to cook all the way through. Instead, you're browning on the tava then cooking and puffing up in the microwave. Sada is our everyday quick roti.
The other type of roti is paratha which is rolled thin, oiled on both sides, and cooked only on a tava. Paratha is the holiday and high days roti.
Variations to plain paratha include: Adding cold cooked mashed potatoes in the dough which results on very soft roti. Adding finely chopped onions, garlic, peppers to the dough. Or taking a lump of dough adding filling in the middle (such as curried ground lamb, or soaked ground, seasoned yellow split peas); closing up dough over the filling; rolling out very gently so that dough doesn't break; finally cooking and oiling on both sides.
Long explanations for variations on the same theme.
I'll have to try yoghurt in my sada roti dough.
BTW, Guyanese cooks are considered the best in the West Indies. ; )

Posted by: BibiW | April 8, 2008 2:35 PM

For those who are taking this wrongly, the intention in my earlier post was not to show whether Kim's roti was "authentic" or not, but just trying to share our traditional roti recipe.
After all Kim has just followed whatever was in Jaffrey's cookbook, which seems different from our version. Appreciate Kim's efforts for making the roti as well as posting this article.

Posted by: vscIndian | April 8, 2008 2:38 PM

stewed: not sure what your problem is.

a lot of people in the US like to make assertions about traditional customs of "ethnic" people without doing much research to back it up.
i, for one, always have to correct people's idea that indians eat "naan bread" (naan is a kind of bread so "naan bread" is like saying "baguette bread") and tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala (which is a modern british-indian restaurant creation, btw) at home everyday. btw, thanks to kim for also making that point.

in this case, because kim referred to something that is eaten at home everyday in most indian households, people who posted here had a lot of information to add to her half-baked story (no pun intended :-)).

Posted by: ad78 | April 8, 2008 3:09 PM

Here I am at lunch reading about the hot, puffed, paper-thin rotis (served, undoubtedly, with a nice vegetable curry :) while chewing on 96% fat-free whole-wheat Mission Tortillas that tastes more like cardboard :(

As a jazz fan I love the idea of improvising and adapting food from the world over to our American table. However, I would call Kim's adaptation as "India-inspired bread". Once one starts using words like roti and chapati to describe it, authenticity is a fair question.

The phrase "Indian bread" is as meaningful as "European rice". I am from Bengal, and we prefer rice to bread. Also, roti and chapatis vary somewhat across the north Indian states.

If her Bengali recipes are any indication, Madhur Jaffrey's cooking is not very authentic and is geared to selling cookbooks to an Western audience. My impression is that the most authentic recipes from India are found on the Internet.

Anyway, authenticity in food is often overrated. I look for easy-to-prepare food that is healthy and tasty, whatever the source may be :)

Posted by: Ajit | April 8, 2008 4:38 PM

Anyone try using the KitchenAid mixer to make the dough, might be easier to mix. I have a few Indian friends who use that.

Posted by: Milwaukee | April 8, 2008 5:18 PM

I have several of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks, and her first one was put together in concert with a BBC-TV cooking show, and she made it clear that her recipes for that book were geared toward the British populace who might not be able to find authentic ingredients in their local markets (this was obviously some 25 years ago). That book always stated, for instance, "An Indian would do it this way, but you may prefer..." IME she does explain when she's adapted a recipe from its origin.

Posted by: MEB | April 8, 2008 5:22 PM

No, those rotis don't look authentic, but then I'm an Indian-American and I like to eat my sabzi (type of vegetable curry) with tortilla chips sometimes! Definitely not "ghar ka khana" (homestyle food) as one commenter noted.

Kim, I think it's wonderful that you're trying to introduce Indian-inspired food to the masses. Please keep it up. A few well-placed qualifiers about the "authenticity" or not of a recipe may save your hide from the purists next time -- as you know by now, people do get a bit resentful when they feel "their" food is being misrepresented, even if done with the best of intentions.

(I was just in Germany, where one of my colleagues insisted on going to a local "Mexican" place out of curiosity for dinner one night. Dreadful, dreadful food! Steamed vegetables and chicken in thin flour wrappers, drenched in white bland cream sauce, with a sprinkling of paprika over top, and called enchiladas!)

Anyway, I'm of south Indian origin and we never really ate roti or naan much at all while I was growing up. Lots of rice, dosa, idli. Quite different from the north, where the breads are more common.

Posted by: venkat | April 8, 2008 7:36 PM

By the way for commenters looking for Indian recipes, I always suggest where there are a lot of recipes contributed by various Indians. The style is different from what you will find in a cookbook, Westernized or not.

Posted by: venkat | April 8, 2008 7:40 PM

For simple day today "roti" all you need is whole wheat dough and water. Salt, yogurt, soda are totally unnecessary. Roti is staple of north India --- its nutritious (made up of 100% pure atta --- whole wheat flour) and little water. It is cooked on an iron tava(skillet) and then on the flame of fire. Its supposed to be rolled very thin and you can put ghee (clarified butter) or any butter on it later on. It is delicious.

Posted by: billu123 | April 8, 2008 9:02 PM

To cc,

Madhur Jaffrey is not Kashmiri, but Kayasth upite from old Delhi.

Posted by: billu123 | April 9, 2008 9:49 AM

i've loved reading all these comments and suggestions! i'm surprised that no one else has mentioned the special whole wheat flour that's used specifically for roti or chapati. I buy mine at our local indian store at the suggestion of my ayurvedic doc's wife. Using our typical whole wheat flour made for a heavy chapati... i can see why you tried white whole wheat flour to lessen this... but using chapati flour helped me see that there's hope for my chapati yet!

Posted by: lizard | April 10, 2008 7:48 AM

Roti it aint, that's for sure. If you are planning on making the chickpeas curry, please take a look here first -

Posted by: Chef Santosh | April 17, 2008 6:38 AM

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