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. (more…)