Our first encounter with authentic Indian cuisine came during a trip to the Middle East some 25 years ago. A few years later we became part of the Southeast Asia office of our former organization headed by an Indian national. This was the time that Nina learned to prepare Indian dishes from our team leader’s wife.
We subsequently found out that while rice is the staple of south India – much like southeast Asian countries – flatbreads are the staple in north India. However, when dining on south Asian food, we usually prefer to have flatbread rather than rice as the accompaniment. Not your usual Filipino or southeast Asian preference but we have good reason to be since we’ve tasted a variety of south Asian flatbreads. Now there are just too many Indian breads to cover here but we’ll limit ourselves to the ones we have encountered plus some variations of the standard breads.
The wide variety of Indian flatbreads is reflective of the diversity of south Asian culture. Roti is sometimes used as a generic term to encompass almost all of the Indian flatbreads. Generally, these flatbreads are made from wheat flour. A dough mixture is created from the flour and water. Sometimes salt is added for taste and sometimes oil or milk is added to create a certain texture and make the bread softer and chewier.
Naan is probably the most famous of Indian breads. It is a soft, leavened flatbread made of white flour traditionally cooked in a tandoor or clay oven that runs on wood or charcoal. Nowadays it can also be cooked in an oven or pan at home. Ghee or clarified butter is often brushed on naan when finished cooking.
Naan may come in a plain version or it may be stuffed with cheese, garlic, potato or even minced meat. It’s the fluffiest of the south Asian bread types. This makes it relatively easy to break off a small piece and to use it to scoop up a dish such as curried chicken or mutton kebab. The Afghan naan which Leo sampled in Peshawar’s restaurants (in Pakistan) is somewhat thicker than most other naan.
Chapati is probably the healthiest of the Indian flatbreads. This unleavened bread is made by slapping and stretching out the dough before being cooked on a griddle or frying pan. The flour is usually made from whole wheat and the resulting chapati turns out thinner than naan. Although ghee is often used in making chapati, Nina has learned to prepare it using only water and salt, resulting in an even healthier type of bread. The chapati is quite versatile and can be paired with almost any kind of curry or stew.
Denser than chapati, the paratha is a flaky and chewy flatbread whose texture is first achieved through a series of ghee-layering and folding. The paratha is then baked on a hot tava or pan before being shallow-fried, resulting in a crispy, flaky texture. Because it has been layered using ghee or oil, and then fried, the paratha has a tendency to be the most decadent of the Indian flatbreads. Ingredients such as vegetables and paneer (cottage cheese) are sometimes mixed into the paratha and, in such cases, it becomes a stand-alone meal usually for breakfast. Our first encounter with this bread was breakfast in Pakistani hotels where it is paired with omelets, dahl and halwa (a semolina pudding).
A type of paratha that is popular in southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Brunei, is roti paratha/prata, roti canai or roti chenai. This bread originated from southern India and, like the traditional paratha, is crusty, flaky and buttery. Eggs are added to the dough mixture with a variety of other ingredients such as meat, onions and cheese added to the mix. It is often used as a breakfast item to go with curries or as a snack item with a curry dipping sauce of different ingredients including coconut milk. It’s a favorite side dish whenever we would dine at a southeast Asian restaurant here in the Philippines.
Fried to a golden, crispy puff, puri is another unleavened flatbread made with whole wheat flour that inflates once the dough is submerged in oil. It is best accompanied by a chana masala (thick chickpea curry), korma (braised meat and vegetables), aloo (potato) or a dahl. We’ve never encountered one before but we’ve seen videos of pani puri, a puri with a hole on top to accommodate a stuffing of potatoes or chick peas and which is then dipped into a serving of chutney.
Besides these pillars of Indian flatbreads, there are many other types of bread in India such as bhatoora, a deep-fried leavened bread made with all-purpose flour and the south Indian dosa, a rice and lentil pancake prepared with fermented rice and lentil batter. And then there’s the parotta, a popular street food in South India, a layered flatbread prepared with all-purpose flour.
Dining on these flatbreads is something we always look forward to whenever being served Indian dishes. We loved it so much that Nina makes chapatis every so often and we dine out from time to time on Indian food even as plant-based eaters. Cheers!