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Chapatis - first recipe, first food

"as with all bread-making, this is not the time for guesswork" Bob Granleese/The Guardian

I have to say that as I read about chapatis, and therefore, inevitably, rotis I became more and more confused about which was which. Virtually everyone said there was very little difference, but then again some were very definite that they were not the same thing at all and listed the differences. All of them subtle - just flour and water, flour with a bit of oil, flour with oil and milk, flour with oil milk and egg. Well subtle as you move from one to the next but with more difference between the one you started with and the one you finished with. Then what flour? Wholemeal, atta, a mix of wholemeal and plain - and that's before you go into all the regional variations and the different flours from other grains that you have available. Just mixed, rolled out and cooked? Mixed rolled out, folded over - how many times? Brushed with oil or ghee? Small or large, thick or thin. Does it matter? No I don't think so, although the majority seemed to be saying that chapatis were more basic than rotis - just flour and water.

So why talk about them at all? Well the main one is this book - Cooking the Indian Way by Asia Hosain and Sita Pasricha - the book that taught me how to cook Indian food and introduced me to cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom, whose existence I was completely unaware of until then. As you can see it is much used - battered and falling apart in places. The reason I am featuring it you see, is that it's my next first recipe book - the next on the shelf - and the first recipe is for chapatis. Which is wholly appropriate because it must also have been one of the first foods cooked by man. They think around 30,000 years old in fact - well for an unleavened flatbread, which is what a basic chapati is. They think that initially those early humans made a gruel out of crushed grain and water, until somebody had the bright idea of making the mix a bit drier, flattening and shaping it and cooking it on a hot rock. Just about every country on earth has some form of flatbread - even sophisticated cuisines such as French and Italian. And chapatis are one of the most basic and primitive of them all.

But like all simple things it's not that simple. I've been making them for years now. Admittedly only occasionally but honestly it's a very hit and miss affair. Sometimes they puff up, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they are soft and perfect, sometimes they are crisp and like cardboard. With respect to which in the process of 'researching' this post I found this piece of advice - so maybe that's just one of the things I have been doing wrong.

"brush one side of each cooked chapati with melted butter, then fold the bread over and cover with a tea towel. ... This keeps them moist and soft, otherwise they’ll be like cardboard before the whole batch is cooked.” Romy Gill/The Guardian

Whether you used any oil or butter (ghee) in the cooking process was another argumentative point. Some did, some didn't. Personally I think that unless you've got a non-stick pan, you may well need a little oil, but that it's probably better not to. However, one point that almost everybody seemed to be agreed on was that you shouldn't have too much flour on them as you put them in the pan. Slap them about before you cook to remove the flour. The hindi word 'chapat' after all means slap (or flat). In fact if you are a real

expert chapati maker you don't roll them out you pull them out with your hands, turning them as you go - like pizza.

And if you are really, really expert, like these Indian ladies, you stretch them out into very thin and large circles to make rumali roti. The finished product on the right seems to be the very large circles folded over and over. What I found interesting about this particular bread is that all the recipes I saw, including one from Christine Manfield, said that you folded these very thin sheets, dabbed with ghee, over and over, and then cooked them, rather than as the Indian ladies here are doing, folding after they are cooked. Go figure.

Back to your basic chapati however. Mix flour and water. You don't want it to be too sticky. Soft but not sticky. Because of my little book, and a second recipe for milk chapatis, I usually add a little bit of oil and milk to this. Which possibly makes them rotis rather than chapatis. Sometimes I really out on a limb and add a little bit of some chopped herb. Well why not? Not authentic, but quite nice and a good way to use up wilting herbs.

Knead until silky and smooth and rest for at least half an hour (I confess I don't usually do this, which is perhaps why mine are generally not that great). They argue about this too - in the fridge or not? Do you grease the bowl? And what do you cover it with - clingfilm, tea towel ...? They also argue as to whether, you should knead it again at the end of the half hour. Divide into balls - about golf ball size. Then there's another argument - leave to rest again or not? I don't. In fact I just tear off chunks and roll out rather than dividing the dough up first. Am I wrong? I really don't know.

Roll them out to about a side plate size. Slap them about in your hands so that the surplus flour spins off and stack them ready to cook. I put a piece of greaseproof paper between each so that they don't stick to each other. Of course, you could start cooking when you've done a couple and just keep rolling and cooking at the same time. Too hard. I prefer to do everything in distinct phases.

As to cooking. Well. So many ways. Do you oil the pan or not? How hot? Some said very hot, some said medium hot. None said low heat. Do you brush the chapati with ghee or oil, before you flip? Do you cook one side until brown spots appear underneath, or do you you turn over when bubbles start to appear (if you're lucky), brush with ghee, and eventually turn over again?

To get them to puff up you are either told to press down on the non puffing bits with a rolled up tea towel or hold them over a naked flame. Surely they would burn? I just watched a bit of a longer video, and it seems that what you do is to cook them on one side, cook them a little bit on the other, then pick them up with tongs - gently so that you don't pierce them and then hold them over the flame. Immediate puff in the video I watched, and he did almost immediately flip it over - a couple of times in fact. I bet it wouldn't happen if I tried it, but I might have a go next time I make them. Looking at other photographs it looks like some people had a nifty sort of tray, like a flat wire hammock, which was held over the flame. others seemed to hold the bread on a thin flat piece of iron over the flame - somewhat above, so that the flame could be felt more directly. Mind you there are an awful lot of people telling you you'll get cancer from the fumes doing it this way. Your choice.

And then I also found this which was immensely reassuring: "Don't worry if it doesn't puff. It is not essential for a chapati to puff." And apologies to whoever wrote that and thank you. I forgot to note the name when I copied on to my blank page.

So there you go. Chapatis. Give it a go. It's a bit like pancakes actually - the first few will probably be pretty dire, but as you go on they get better. If they could do it 30,000 years ago, we can surely do it now.


I noticed this rather tempting looking dish in a recent Guardian newsletter. It's called Palaver sauce (Ghanaian spinach stew) which is also a tantalising name, from a country whose cuisine I know nothing about. So I started reading through the article and came across these words:

"Spinach is still not something I eat abundantly as an adult, but here, combined with red palm oil, tomatoes, egusi (melon seed) and a few other simple ingredients, it creates wonder.” Akwasi Brenya-Mensa

Red palm oil, egusi! Simple ingredients? And the 'others' included Scotch bonnet chillies, plantains and all-purpose seasoning. Well I have looked and I see that all-purpose seasoning is indeed a thing and available - I really must look into that sometime. However no Scotch bonnet chillies to be seen and I already knew we don't do plantains here in Australia. Well we don't have large numbers of West Indians and Africans here in Australia. An increasing number of Africans I suppose, so maybe one day we shall get plantains too. Anyway - not a dish for here. Perhaps I'm being unfair. Maybe it's just a demonstration of how migrant populations, depending on where they come from, influence the cuisine of their new home. The Guardian is British after all. Landscape in a saucepan.


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