In praise of the chapati

India is a vast country and, unsurprisingly, has a very rich and varied cuisine.  Probably because we live in a rather small country half-way across the world from India, we in the UK tend to underestimate the amount of variety in Indian food (and probably in most other aspects of its culture too).  I remember an incident that took place a few years ago, which helps me to resist making this mistake.

I went out for a curry with some friends, one of whom had fairly recently come over from India.  The rest of us were surprised to find that he had never previously come across naan bread, which we had taken to be a standard feature of Indian menus.  My friend came from Assam (in the far north-east of India) and had lived for some time in Bangalore (down in the south) and apparently naan is not eaten (or at least not often) in those places.

That anecdote is a roundabout way of introducing what I actually wanted to talk about today, which is another kind of Indian flatbread: the chapati.  Unlike naan, chapatis are unleavened.  They are very quick, easy and fun to make and are almost always what I go for if I’m making bread to accompany a curry or dal.  I assume that, like naan, they are probably not found everywhere in India but they do seem to be fairly widespread.  They are usually available at Indian restaurants in the UK too (at least the ones I’ve been to) although seem to be a far less popular choice amongst the British public than naan.

I gather that chapatis are traditionally made with a very finely milled, strong (i.e. high-gluten) and usually wholemeal flour called atta flour, but I have found that ordinary plain flour seems to work perfectly well.  Actually, I should probably try to get hold of some proper atta flour so I can carry out a proper comparison.  My method for making chapatis is something like this:

Put some flour in a bowl (I usually sieve it in to ensure that it’s not too lumpy, but if your flour is in good condition that step is probably not vital).  Add a pinch of salt and a dash of oil (olive oil or vegetable oil seem to work fine), then mix in enough water to make a reasonably stiff dough.  You need to be fairly careful adding the water, as it’s quite easy to put in too much and then it’s necessary to add loads more flour to rescue it.  Note that I haven’t specified exact quantities of the ingredients — unlike most baking tasks, chapati-making seems to work quite well with a lob-in-what-feels-right approach to measuring (the same way that I usually approach cooking curries etc.).

I quite often leave the chapati dough to sit for a while before I roll it out but it seems to work quite well without any sitting time.  That’s quite convenient as it means I can whip up a quick batch of chapatis while I’m waiting for my rice to cook (20 minutes, using a method I found years ago in a Chinese cookbook).

Divide the chapati dough into balls (roughly ping-pong ball size — again it’s a matter for feel rather than careful measurement) and roll them out into roughly circular shapes using a rolling pin and plenty of extra flour.  The exact size is not crucial – I usually aim for a little bit smaller than the diameter of my frying pan – and they should be fairly thin but thick enough to be able to transfer to the pan without falling apart.

Heat your frying pan good and hot and then fry/toast each chapati on both sides until it’s beginning to brown nicely.  You can either flip the chapati pancake-style halfway through or turn it with a spatula or fish-slice (I usually go for the first option as it’s more fun).  As with cooking pancakes, you usually have to be fairly patient with the first few, while the pan is heating up.  Later, they should cook fairly rapidly (and if you have an extractor fan it’s probably good to use it, as the cooking can get quite smoky and set off your fire alarms).  It’s not necessary to grease the pan much, if at all.  Usually I put a squirt of spray oil in the pan before I start and that’s enough lubrication for the whole cooking job.

Once cooked, the chapatis can be served as they are, or you can glaze them by rubbing a bit of butter into one or both sides.  That’s a tip I picked up from another Indian friend.  He used ghee (clarified butter), but I generally don’t have that in stock and I’ve found that ordinary butter works fine.

I understand that chapatis are quite often used instead of cutlery in India, which would have the benefit of saving a bit of washing up.  In general, I eat with a fork in one hand and a piece of chapati in the other, using the chapati to scoop up food or to brace it while I pick it up with the fork.  After a few mouthfuls, I eat the chapati piece and pick up a fresh one.  I usually try to save a bit of the final chapati to mop my plate at the end of the meal.

I don’t make chapatis every time I’m eating curry, but they are certainly a useful thing to have in my cooking repertoire.  I have occasionally made up a few chapatis to eat with other, non-Indian, food when I’ve been out of bread and short of time or inclination to make any more complicated loaves.

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