December 7, 2016 – Lucky Peach
If you’ve eaten at an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, chances are you’ve mopped up a red slick of butter chicken with a folded wedge of naan. And yet that ubiquitous flatbread, like so much else that defines the cuisine of the subcontinent (potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, tea), is really a foreign dish, prepared using refined flour, which came across the Himalayas from central Asia in the twelfth century, along with Muslim settlers. Before that, North India’s unleavened wheat-based flatbreads—rotis, chapatis, and puris—would have been made from whole grains, while the rice-eating South elaborated its own distinct set of breads from batters of rice and lentils.
Like so much else in India, the bread traditions vary along a North-South/wheat-rice axis (with other grains like sorghum, millet, amaranth, and semolina making occasional appearances). But the staggering diversity of India’s breads also reflects a long history of trade and invasion, of cultural and culinary syncretism. It would be virtually impossible to capture the full diversity of India’s breads (though Saee Koranne-Khandekar makes an admirable attempt in her new book Crumbs!), or even to say what, in India, counts as bread. But here we’ve given it a go. I went about it like this: if it’s starchy and used as a utensil, it’s bread.
Atta: whole-wheat flour
Maida: refined flour
Jaggery: unrefined cane sugar
Tawa: a round metal cooking utensil, sometimes flat, sometimes slightly concave
Tandoor: an earthen oven
Maida is kneaded with yogurt and either ghee or oil then left to leaven. It’s rolled flat and broad and deep-fried until it puffs up and turns golden brown (the best are like crisp, steam-filled beach balls, only slightly smaller). Often, bhatura comes with chana masala,spiced chickpea curry, as the famous North Indian snack chole bhature.
Where: All over North India
With What: Chole (spiced chickpea curry)
Kulchas, made from the same dough as bhatura and principally from the northwestern state of Punjab, are sometimes baked but usually cooked on a tawa, yielding a supple, chewy bread very similar to naan. In Kashmir, which has perhaps the richest bread-making tradition in all of the subcontinent (due to its proximity to central Asia), the same word describes a hard, round bun—sometimes sweet, sometimes savory, sometimes laden with butter—typically eaten in the afternoon with pink, salted tea, called noon chai.
Where: Kashmir or Punjab
With What: Salted tea or any old curry you like
Made from an elastic dough that mixes atta and maida, rumali roti takes its name from the word for “handkerchief” (rumal) in Hindi and other North Indian languages. Rumali roti originates in the highly sophisticated, richly spiced cuisine that emerged under the tenure of the Mughal emperors in Delhi and Agra, and it’s still most common in the North and in Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country. Stretched broad and thin, rumali roti is tossed almost like a pizza until it’s translucent and wide, sometimes up to nearly two feet in diameter, then cooked over an iron dome heated with coals. Rumali roti, like much Mughlai cooking, is an example of the ingenuity and innovation that came out of India’s Muslim imperial kitchens.
Where: Originally Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, now anyplace with a sizable Muslim population
With What: Usually meat dishes, like creamy galouti kebabs, or the marrow-studded stew nalli nihari
Made from unleavened atta, parathas come in two primary forms (though there are dozens of others): plain or stuffed. Plain parathas are rolled out into a circle, folded into a triangle, and rolled again to give them densely pressed layers. Stuffed parathas are usually made by sealing potatoes, lentils, or cauliflower (though the options are basically limitless) between two rolled flatbreads, then rolling the whole thing out again into a stuffed pancake. In both cases, the final paratha is first cooked on a dry tawa to mottle the surface, then shallow fried (preferably in ghee) and served with yogurt and pickle for a classic North Indian breakfast.
Where: Eaten all over North India
With What: Various, but most famously mango pickle and yogurt
Something like a mildly sweet naan, sheermal is made with saffron-infused milk and cooked in the tandoor. A specialty in the city of Lucknow, sheermal first came to India when the Mughals imported a governor and bureaucrats from Iran to oversee the region of Awadh, which, by the early eighteenth century, had become an extravagantly wealthy kingdom in its own right. In the bazaars of Lucknow today, whole lanes of sheermal vendors stack orange rounds of bread around open tandoors—a decadent utensil for the richly spiced meat curries and kebabs for which the city is famous.
With What: Anything meat-based with warm spices, like nihari or haleem
Still the subject of a horrifically violent and complex dispute between India and Pakistan, Kashmir is where central Asia, home to some of the world’s oldest and richest baking traditions, becomes South Asia. Bakeries (known as kandurs) are as common in Kashmiri towns as halal carts in midtown Manhattan, their open fronts piled with large, pale naan-like breads called lavasa; flaky, layeredkatlams; and deeply scored girdas, which, in the mornings, are smeared with jam or butter and eaten alongside mild saffron- and cardamom-scented tea. But one of the most popular breads is chochwor, which resembles a soft poppy seed bagel and is eaten in many Kashmiri households with afternoon salt chai.
With What: Tea
Golden, crepe-like dosas made from fermented rice-and-lentil batters are one of relatively few Indian dishes outside of the popular standbys of North India to gain popularity in the United States. Often stuffed with spiced potatoes (or, in Mumbai, any number of oddities, first among them vile “Sichuan” noodles), dosas read more as bread than as a snack, which is how they’re often eaten. But in their other variants—rava dosa, made from semolina and riddled with holes like a slice of swiss cheese; fluffy ulundu dosa, made from urad dal; and lacy pesarattu, made from mung beans—dosas serve the same role as a roti, doubling as starch and utensil to be used with fish or vegetable curries or with various chutneys for breakfast.
Where: Originally from the South, now available everywhere
With What: Coconut chutney and sambar, a South Indian lentil dish
While it’s technically another variety of dosa, neer dosa is singular enough in texture and flavor to warrant its own entry. Neer dosa originates in the region of Tulu Nadu, a narrow stretch of India’s southwestern coast between Kerala and Goa that produces fine seafood and vegetarian cooking. Meaning “water dosa” in the local Tulu language, neer dosa is made from a thin, unfermented rice batter cooked lightly on a tawa. It comes out white, gauzy, and slightly stretchy, like cheong fun without the chew.
With What: Anything you like, but best with seafood
Another dish from Tulu country, these sweet buns are named for the coastal city of Mangalore in the modern-day state of Karnataka. Like naan and sheermal in the North—and really any wheat-based bread in the South—they are the result of outside influence. A major trading post for millennia, Mangalore has been under the control of the Buddhist Mauryas of North India, many of the major Hindu dynasties that rose and fell in Southern India, the Muslim Sultans of Mysore, and the Catholic Portuguese (regional competition from Dutch trading posts down the coast also left their mark on the region), resulting in some of the finest, most varied food in South India. The dough consists of refined wheat flour kneaded with ripe bananas and yogurt (and sometimes some cumin seeds); it’s left overnight to rise, then deep-fried in the morning. Steam-filled and fluffy and mildly sweet, Mangalore buns—particularly when eaten with coconut chutney and a cup of milky-sweet South Indian coffee—are among the heartiest breakfasts the subcontinent has to offer.
With What: Coconut chutney and sweet coffee
Bowl-shaped appams are made from a fermented rice batter lightly sweetened with a pinch of sugar. Cooked in a concave pan called anappachatti, the batter forms crisp, lacy upper edges and pools in the center to form a thick, pillowy mound. Most often associated with the southwestern state of Kerala, appams are also popular across the hills in Tamil Nadu and south in Sri Lanka, where they’re Anglicized as “hoppers” and often served for breakfast with an egg cracked in the center. There are at least a half dozen variations popular among different communities in the region, including kallappam, which uses toddy, or coconut palm wine, as a fermenting agent, and palappam, made with thick coconut milk, which makes the center softer and sweeter.
With What: For breakfast, eat with vegetable ishtu (stew) or fiery egg curry
Most common in Sri Lanka, though eaten in South India, too, “string hoppers” (as they’re usually Anglicized) are made with a simple batter of rice or millet flour and water, which is then pressed into fine noodles and steamed as cakes roughly the size of potato latkes. Usually eaten at breakfast with mildly spiced curries, string hoppers are only bread in the most liberal sense of the word, but they’re delicious and very much a part of the appam family.
Where: Sri Lanka
With What: Best with mild breakfast curries made with turmeric-stained coconut milk
The Southern iteration of the paratha bears a slight resemblance to its North Indian namesake, aside from its richness and its use of maida, likely introduced through the Muslim community in the state’s northern reaches. The dough, typically made with maida and ghee and sometimes an egg, gets worked over a flat surface into a thin sheet, then pleated, rolled into spirals, and griddled in more ghee. The result is an enormous buttery mess: delicately feathered, flaky, crisp, and soft.
With What: Absolutely everything
Another Keralite bread, neypathal is made from an unfermented rice batter flavored with coconut and fennel then deep-fried. It’s eaten either with tea and fruit for breakfast, or as a flatbread/utensil with any number of curries at lunch or dinner.
With What: Fruit and tea for breakfast, curries for lunch or dinner
The classic bread of Bengal and other adjacent states in eastern India, a luchi is more or less the same as a traditional deep-fried puri, though it’s made with refined flour and ghee rather than whole wheat and oil, making for a lighter, stretchier bread.
With What: Great for thick, mustardy Bengali curries
A staple dish in the state of Bihar (and similar in appearance tobaati, made in the state of Rajasthan), litti are dense, dry balls ofcarom-spiked atta stuffed with a mixture of spiced chickpea flour, usually flavored with some combination of cumin, carom, onion seed, cilantro, chilies, and ginger. Formed into fist-sized balls and roasted in ghee, litti are almost always served with a mashed vegetable, called chokha.
With What: Mashed vegetable dishes, called chokha (a favorite: charred eggplant mashed with yogurt, mustard oil, cilantro, and chili)
A common term for a variety of small, shaped breads made throughout the eastern states of Assam, Odisha, and Bengal, pithascan be sweet or savory, rice- or wheat-based, stuffed or solid, fried or baked or steamed. Savory pithas are stuffed with cooked and mashed vegetables like potato or cauliflower, while sweet pithas typically involve coconut, cane sugar, dates, or nuts. In most households in the region, pithas are a special-occasion dish, made for festivals and life-cycle events, while in Assam the term is applied pretty broadly to most dishes resembling breads, including a variation made from rice batter steamed in bamboo.
Where: Orissa, Assam, Bengal
With What: On their own
The Khasi tribes in the hill state of Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh, prepare foods virtually unrelated to what you’ll find elsewhere in India, with a heavy emphasis on pork, bamboo, and fermented beans or river fish, served with heaping mounds of rice. One of the only bread-like items traditionally prepared among the Khasis is putharo, a glutinous pancake made from ground red sticky rice that’s wrapped in leaves (usually banana), steamed, and served hot with red tea at small shacks on damp hillside roads.
With What: In the morning with red tea
Translating roughly to “red bread,” this sweet fried bread is a specialty of the Meitei community in the far eastern state of Manipur, which occupies a valley along the border with Burma. Made from maida, jaggery, and fennel, tal angangba is served for a Meitei Hindu ceremony called Shorat, performed on the thirteenth day after a loved one’s death.
With What: Nothing
A specialty of the Konkan Coast, the western coastal region between Mumbai and Goa, deep-fried vade (not to be confused with vada, a snack made from deep-fried fermented rice batter in the South, orsabudana vada, made from tapioca) are made from a batter of rice, lentils, and a variety of finely ground spices, often a combination of coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and pepper. Since coriander and fenugreek both act as thickeners, unleavened vade come out of the fryer puffed and hollow like puris. Vade are most often served with a spicy, coconut-based chicken curry as part of a dish called kombdi vade (best eaten at a street cart of the same name in Mumbai).
Where: Konkan Coast (coastal Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka)
With What: Versatile, but ideal with fiery fish curries
A sweet flatbread from the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, puran poli is typically served as part of the festivities surrounding holidays like Ganesh Chaturthi (the ten-day festival of the elephant-headed god that brings Mumbai to a virtual standstill each year). Made from a thinly rolled wheat-flour dough, puran poli is stuffed with a sweet mixture of lentils and unrefined cane sugar, then cooked in ghee on the tawa. Similar dishes known as boli, holige, and obbattu can be found in India’s southern states.
Where: Maharashtra and Gujarat
With What: Usually on its own; in the far South, served with payasam, a thin rice pudding
A crisp but pliable flatbread from the arid, largely vegetarian region of Gujarat, theplas are typically made by combining atta with yogurt, a bit of turmeric, and, in the most flavorful iteration, chopped fenugreek leaves (methi), though plain theplas are common as well. Rolled flat, then cooked on the tawa with a small pour of oil, methi theplas are bitter and aromatic, delicious with yogurt or mango pickle, and a staple bread in most Gujarati households.
With What: They travel well with pickles, or are great with vegetable curries at lunch
Not unlike a thepla in texture, Maharashtrian thalipeeth is a crisp-edged, pan-fried flatbread made from a combination of grains that usually includes whole wheat, millet, and chickpea flours and sometimes also sorghum and rice. Chopped cilantro, curry leaves, onion, tomato, turmeric, cumin, and chilies are mixed in for flavor before rolling out the dough out (usually with a little hole in the center) and frying it on the tawa with a bit of oil. A variation on this combines tapioca and amaranth flours for a lighter, paler bread.
With What: Ghee or yogurt
These twice-roasted atta rotis from Sindh, a desert region in modern-day Pakistan just northwest of Gujarat, are flavored with dried and ground pomegranate seed (a killer souring agent), coriander, cumin, and chilies (also sometimes asafetida and turmeric, depending on who’s making them). Once the unleavened dough is mixed, it’s rolled out, then dry-roasted briefly on the tawa before being broken, reformed into a ball, rolled out, and roasted a second time, yielding a thick, flaky flatbread.
Where: Sindh (western Gujarat/southeastern Pakistan)
With What: Ideally with lime pickle and yogurt
Common in one form or another throughout Western and Central India, bhakri can be made from any number of grains, particularly wheat, sorghum, millet, and, along the Konkan Coast, rice. More a generic name for a group of breads than a singular style, bhakris can vary pretty widely from place to place, depending on the grain used and thickness, but they tend to be coarser, thicker, and more flavorful than their closest relative, the ubiquitous roti.
Where: West and Central India, but especially Maharashtra and Gujarat
With What: Any type of curry, vegetable fry, or dal
Pav is the Mumbai iteration of the Portuguese word pão, introduced by traders and missionaries in the early colonial period. Because yeast was hard to come by at the time, early recipes for pav used toddy as a fermenting agent, though most modern recipes for these soft, spongy buns call for shelf-stable yeast. On any street in Mumbai, you’ll find them split and stuffed with omelets, toasted and served with pav bhaji (a mess of smashed vegetables cooked down with outrageous quantities of butter), or, in Muslim neighborhoods, served with kheema (spiced minced mutton). The most iconic snack of the city combines pav with a Maharashtrian dish called batata vada—a deep-fried battered ball of spiced smashed potatoes—for a carb-on-carb punch to the gut that is, sort of ironically, both a populist symbol for the conservative, regionalist ruling party, and, in its actual multi-culti origins, a powerful symbol, like bread itself, of how unstable the idea of “tradition” truly is.
Where: Mumbai and Goa
With What: Great with minced mutton, deep-fried vegetables (pav bhaji), and, most famously, batata vada