When I think of the millions upon millions of people who make beautiful, delicious roti every day, it makes me glad to be alive. Roti is that magic combination of simplicity, food, and art.

Experienced Indian cooks, the kind who learned the trade from their mothers from the time they were young, will perhaps wonder why I would devote time to explaining how to make roti. For people like my mother in-law, making roti is as natural as breathing; it's simplicity in itself. Roti at its most basic takes only two ingredients, atta and water. Where could the challenge be?

Oh. dear. heaven. Can I tell you about some of the awful, awful roti I made when I was first learning? About the ones that were fit only for the neighborhood cow, the ones my mother in-law's kitchen helpers laughed at, the ones they couldn't even laugh at because they were so bad? About the (literal) blood (yes, you can cut yourself making roti; I did it once...burn yourself, too), sweat, and tears (of frustration and inadequacy). 

The thing is, more than anything else, I would say that making good roti is the hallmark of a good cook of Indian food. I might even go so far as to say that good roti is the hallmark of a good Indian housewife. Until I could make decent roti, I knew my Indian cooking skills were seriously deficient.

All of the Indian cookbooks I own, if they include a recipe for roti at all, blithely explain that it is a very simple process that takes practice. And they might have a picture or two and leave it there. These books (the roti pages of which are very worn and stained-- and I won't tell you which stains are tears stains) did not help.

My sister in-law, from whom I finally learned to make roti, tells hilarious stories about her own schooling in roti-making. When she was a young girl and hanging out in a hot kitchen was low on her priority list, her mother's friends would warn her, "You better just learn to do this. Your mother in-law's not going to like it if you come to her not knowing how to make roti." She blew them off for a while, but eventually learned to make perfect, delicious roti.

The first time she made roti for husband's family, her mother in-law hovered over her to see if her roti would puff-up over the flame as good roti should. She remembers a moment of agony and panic that passed between the moment she set it on the flame and the moment it puffed up like wheat balloon.

Her mother in-law nodded. Here was one thing that could definitely not be held against her new bahu (daughter in-law).

Roti is served with nearly every home-cooked meal in many regions of India and is a staple of the Indian kitchen. Tava roti is almost synonymous with home-cooking. Many restaurants in the United States don't make them, preferring instead to serve parathas or nan; in fact, I've been to restaurants even in India where tava roti is not available.

In the English-speaking world, we get together to break bread. In Hindi, we share roti. Roti is healthy (particularly when you serve it without ghee), beautiful, and delicious.

What will follow on this page are the instructions I needed about ten years ago.

Even before I was married, I was a good cook. I had attempted and succeeded at doing some not-so-easy things. And yet my rotis were terrible. Every time. So the question I had was, "What's the trick?" I figured there must be some secret something that someone wasn't telling me.

Here is the secret: all of it.

Roti can be screwed up magnificently at each and every stage of the process. That's what makes it so desperately hard to get right. And like so many other things (riding a bicycle, swimming, soothing a screaming infant) it looks like (and feels like) the most easy and natural thing in the world once you've mastered it.

You've got to start with the flour. Don't buy that nonsense about mixing white and wheat flour. Find yourself some high-quality atta flour. I like the Golden Temple brand.

The ratio of flour to water that I've found to generally work is 2 measures of flour to one measure of water. 1 cup of flour usually makes me about six reasonably-sized rotis. Today when I put my one cup of flour in my bowl, and mixed in my water (poured in all at once and then mixed by hand), I found I needed an extra tablespoon of water. That can happen. I am not sure why. Guesses include outside humidity and my inability to measure precisely. Anyway I've been told that unlike western breadmaking where it's better to keep adding flour until the dough is the proper consistency (see my recipe for whole-wheat pav to come later), in roti-making it's better to keep adding water until the dough is the proper consistency.

When I mixed everything together, this is what it looked like:
More important than what it looks like is what it feels like. I wish I could let you squeeze it. It should be soft and slightly (just slightly) sticky. The softness is key. If your dough isn't right, you'll have screwed up the roti. I have screwed it up many times.

I've also found that at this stage my dough likes to sit by itself in a quiet corner for about ten minutes. Darned if I know why, but it just makes for better roti.

So once you have let your dough chill out for a few minutes, you are going to pinch off enough to roll into a ball that is just a smidge smaller than a golf ball and you're going to coat the ball in flour. I usually have a handy bowl of excess flour standing by for just the occasion:

Then I pat it flat with my hands and lay it on my rolling surface:
 At this point I coat everything with flour again and I start rolling. Here is where many screw-ups can happen. You need make sure the disc you end up with is neither to thick nor too thin. If it starts to get translucent, it's too thin. I roll mine to about seven or so inches in diameter before I throw it on the tava. You don't want any holes or tears in it, and you want to make sure that you've gotten as much flour-dust as possible off the roti before putting it on the tava.
The roti on the tava above has already been cooked on one side. You'll want to set your stove to medium heat. Any higher and the roti will burn. I've done that. Many times. This roti was cooked for less than a minute before it was flipped.

Now comes the fun part. If you have a gas stove (and if you don't, get one next time), you are going to put the roti directly over the flame. If you have made it correctly, it should do this:

If you don't have a gas oven, you can coax a roti into puffing up on the tava, but I have never had such good results as over the open flame.

Don't leave the roti on the flame for long--just as long as it takes to puff. Then take your tongs and put it on your plate. It's done! 

No comments:

Post a Comment