Accustomed to the rather plain fare of just wheat or brown bread in England, Ellie Daniel is amazed to discover the exciting range of Indian breads from the roti, chapati, phulka, puri, batura to the ultimate Indian bread—the parotta! Incidentally, bakery bread is treated with disdain and regarded as a sick person’s food by Indians whose lip smacking bread legacy is a gastronomic delight!
Coming from England, a nation where bread is a staple part of our diet, I was expecting to miss my daily diet of bread when I embarked on my trip to India. Back home, we often start with toast for breakfast, followed by a sandwich for lunch and most likely, a slice of bread with dinner. Only aware of the stereotypical Indian cuisine of curry and rice, I was astounded to discover the complex variety of breads on offer in South India.
In fact, the array of different breads eaten daily in Madurai puts our narrow English choice of white or brown bread to shame. Keen to learn about what they’re made of and how they’re made, I interviewed two chefs working in local street restaurants and three chefs at the Projects Abroad kitchen.
What is Indian Bread?
Indian breads differ greatly in their appearance, texture and taste. There is a different bread for every occasion. Varieties include thin chapatis, rotis and phulka, which are reminiscent of pancakes with their large flat round shape. The ever popular parotta is a smaller, thicker more filling bread presented in fluffy layers of dough. In contrast, there are the crispy poori and batura, which are both fried in oil, and may not be the healthiest option but certainly one of the tastiest.
All of these are vastly different from the crusty loaves of bread that I am accustomed to. With the exception of naan, a bread made of refined flour, which is from the North of India and commonly found in Indian restaurants in England, they were all new to me. Traditionally enjoyed with either meat or vegetable gravy such as a sambar, Maduraiites enjoy these breads at breakfast or for dinner, but not at lunch, where rice is preferable because it is considered the ‘heaviest’ meal of the day.
When I discussed the importance of bread in the Indian diet with the Projects Abroad chefs, Suresh, Silambarasan and Shankar, I enquired as to whether they had ever eaten bought pre-made sliced bread. They responded with looks of horror. They claim that bread is only eaten when the chefs are, “too ill to make fresh bread!”
Ingredients and Preparation
All varieties of bread contain flour, water, and salt. For chapati, phulka and poori, 100 percent atta or wheat flour is used, whereas for parotta and batura, maida or refined flour is used, along with a fair amount of oil, a little milk and, for some recipes, also egg. As I observed at the Projects Abroad kitchen, the difference between the taste of Indian breads is created through the process of making the dough and most importantly, the cooking rather than a significant difference in ingredients. The actual cooking process takes a mere matter of minutes.
For chapatis, it takes only five minutes to make the dough. For parotta, a longer process is necessary to create the distinctive layered effect, in which the dough is carefully manipulated into a swirled shape and then left to set. Batura and puri are both fried in oil, whereas chapati and parotta are cooked on a ‘tava,’ which is a large gas stove. Phulka is first cooked like chapati, and then cooked directly on a high flame so that it is softer and more like a crepe than a chapati.
Having seen the relatively simple preparation that went into making the bread, and the fresh steaming results, I felt somewhat ashamed and embarrassed by my lazy approach to bread back at home, which I never make myself.
Of the many chefs we met this month for our special edition on South Indian food, there was a unanimous answer when it came to Madurai’s favourite bread. It is undoubtedly the parotta. Its soft layers of creamy dough prove irresistible. In fact, such is the importance of parota in Madurai, that there is a variety named ‘Madurai Parota’ in its honour!
According to H.A Saravanan, owner of New Janani Mess, the process of making parotta is the most complex due to its layered texture. In my opinion, however, the time consuming process is definitely worth the end result. Saravanan serves parotas for Rs.6 a piece to 300 customers daily from 12.00am -12.00pm, adding up to around 40 kilograms per day!
A street stall chef, Bagyaraj, explained that such is the demand for parotta, he no longer enjoys the job as much as before because he finds it difficult to keep up with the demand. He also faces the impatience of customers who just cannot wait to tuck in, putting him under pressure.
Personally, I share Madurai’s love for parotta, and am not eagerly awaiting my return to England, where parotta and indeed, all South Indian breads are yet to be discovered, and gain the appreciation they deserve.