In my home in Bombay, we never bought flour, we bought wheat. And we didn’t buy wimpy five-pound bags either. We bought enough wheat in bulk to fill up a tin canister as tall as one’s knees. Once a month or thereabouts, we would hire a neighborhood working lady to hoist that tin canister up on her head and carry it to the neighborhood burr mill. They would stone-grind the wheat into flour, completely whole — germ, bran and all — which they would testify to by weighing the product before and after. The burr mill would single-file through the customer requests, in order to be able to testify to flour wholeness.
This is chakki ka atta (translated: burr mill flour), that we used rest of the month to make chapati (roti), poori, or paratha.
Let’s start with the simplest of them, the chapati. There are just two ingredients — water and flour.
Kneaded together, a new ingredient magically comes alive inside the dough. This is gluten, the protein that is formed inside dough in the presence of water. Gluten is what gives dough its stretchiness and its stubbornness. Wheat dough is not just pliable — it wants to fight back. It takes a shape, but wants to go back to its previous shape. The pliability; the ability to hold a shape; the elasticity; all this is because of its gluten.
I like to imagine multitudes of tiny balloons inside the dough, all of which can be blown up without breaking, while keeping the dough from breaking into bits. These gluten balloons fill up with air so bread can rise and hold all the air inside instead of escaping. The gluten balloon allows chapatis to puff up with steam.
That brings me to a common misunderstanding — chapatis/rotis are often called the unleavened flat breads of India. But they are not unleavened. Leavened just means risen, and rotis are indeed risen, at the last minute of cooking, when they puff up with steam. Steam leavening is a respectable form of leavening that is probably the most ancient. I picture housewives in the Indus Valley civilization slapping circles of dough on their wood-burning griddles and watching them puff up.
They are unfermented, however, and no external leavening agent like yeast or baking soda are added.
During my childhood we had a chapati meal for either lunch or dinner every day. Two circular chapatis with a few dark brown spots, folded into quarters. A dal, a vegetable and a cup of yogurt completed the meal. When this is everyday food, one scorns it; half a world away in California, deprived of one’s neighborhood burr mill, a source of wheat, and the proper chapati-making expertise, it becomes an undertaking.
For years I tried to approximate chakki ka atta in California by mixing half and half of whole wheat and all purpose flour. But I was never thrilled about the lack of wholeness there (yes I’m a bit of a fanatic); and one day I used straight whole wheat, the rotis came out perfectly fine, so I have stuck with that. This makes sense — the species of wheat used for bread-making in the West (triticum aestivum) is the same as most of the wheat grown in India, mainly for the use of making chapatis. (There are many different subspecies though.) The grain size of chakki ka atta is probably smaller. But I haven’t found this to be a huge problem. I use King Arthur’s Premium Whole Wheat flour and get perfectly good, puffed up, rustic rotis.
2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup + 3 tbsp water
Method for dough:
Put the flour in a bowl, make a sort of well in the center, and pour the water in. Use a spoon or a chopstick to stir the water into the flour till you get a shaggy mass and most of the flour is moistened. Cover with a plate, and walk away for 10 minutes or so.
Why? The short wait gets the process of the flour absorbing the water started, and just allows the kneading to happen faster. It’s the lazy person’s method — allow time to do the work that you would have otherwise had to expend elbow grease for.
If the 10 minutes stretch to 20 minutes, that’s fine too, but do cover the flour, to prevent it from drying out.
Come back to your dough and combine it into a rough ball with your fingers. This should be relatively easy to do (should take just a minute) but will still have a shaggy appearance.
Now the kneading begins. Clear a 2′ by 2′ square on your counter and place the dough there. Push it, squeeze it, fold it; squeeze it and fold it over and over again, for about 7 minutes. Use your strength. Be firm with the dough. From a shaggy mass the dough will become satiny smooth and hold together in an oblong. It should feel a lot like human muscle when squeezed, but more like slack than taut muscle. If too sticky, add some dry flour, spoon-by-spoon; if too taut, spread it out flat, sprinkle some water on it, and incorporate it with more kneading.
Keep it aside for half hour or so before making rotis with it. The extra wait allows the gluten to relax. This is a lot like exercising: the way one pushes one’s muscles to work, until they feel a little too taut; then one waits a few minutes to relax before exercising some more.
Coat with oil on the outside to keep from drying out. If you want to stash it for another day, it will be good in the fridge in tupperware for a week or even two.
Method for rolling and roasting chapatis
Step 1: Make a few golf-ball-sized balls. I make around 8 (the evening’s dinner amount), roll them to make smooth balls, flatten them slightly into disks, and cover with flour to keep from drying out.
Step 2: Roll. Start with the first disk you made. This gives it a few minutes to relax after being handled. Use a good heavy rolling pin and roll out into a thin disk about 6-7 inches in diameter. You will need to sprinkle some dry flour on the counter and on the dough to keep it from sticking; here I use all purpose, but whole wheat will do as well.
Step 3: Roast. Have a griddle on medium-high heat. No oil needed. When hot, slap a disk on. Wait thirty seconds; the chapati will start to show small bubbles. Flip. Wait another thirty seconds; this time the small bubbles will combine into a few bigger bubbles.
Now you have a choice. Either flip once again for the last time, wait thirty seconds (hopefully it should puff out more) and take the chapati off the griddle.
Or, turn on the flame on a separate burner, and flip the chapati onto the open flame using the burner grate to place it on. It should puff up in a few seconds. Turn off the flame and pull it off with tongs. Don’t leave it on longer than ten seconds or so, because it will burn.
If you want, sprinkle some ghee on top of the still hot chapati.
Some of these steps take practice. So get thee to the kitchen and get started!