While eating bread may be the great cross-cultural common denominator, the art of bread making divides those who can from those who cannot. At a lefse-making party, my friend Paurvi Bhatt noticed that lefse is similar to Indian roti, the unleavened bread that accompanies everyday meals of stews and curries.
We lovers of flatbreads were intrigued, and soon we gathered in her kitchen to learn the art of roti from her mom, Rekha Bhatt, and her aunt, Ila Patel. Their recipe, like so many of our food traditions, was not passed down to them in writing but as a hands-on experience.
Women like Bhatt and Patel have been making roti their entire lives, and it shows in the ease of their movements as they knead, roll and char the flatbread.
Patel pulled a soup spoon from the kitchen drawer and used it to measure salt that she added to a few cups of whole wheat flour. She added nothing more than a slow stream of water and a bit of oil to the flour, all the while kneading with one hand. Once the dough was to her liking, she used both hands to gently but steadily knead the craggy mix. Her hands did not stop moving until the dough was supple and smooth.
Patel dipped her hand into the dough and pulled out a small piece, then quickly rolled the dough into a walnut-sized ball. She placed the ball on a round marble pastry slab and used a thin tapered rolling pin to work it into a 5-inch round.
I mimicked her movements, and proudly displayed my first attempt, a roti shaped more like the state of Texas than a circle. Patel smiled and took the bread from me, deftly reshaping it and teasing me, “OK for you, but I’ll make a round one.”
She placed the flatbread over the flames of the stovetop burner for a few seconds, using her fingers and a small tong to rotate each piece and then flip it after she achieved just the right amount of char. The finished flatbreads were stacked on a plate, with melted ghee dribbled over each piece.
We tore at the warm, buttery pieces, spread with a bit of Bhatt’s faux tamarind chutney, and listened to their stories of immigration.
In the late 1960s, American grocery stores didn’t carry many Indian ingredients, and Bhatt became creative at substitutions. Although specialty items like tamarind chutney are now common, she continues to use the recipe she came up with decades ago: a combination of apple butter, lemon and spices that mimics the flavors of tamarind.
My roti are never going to be as perfectly round as Patel’s, but they taste pretty good. Like Bhatt, I make substitutions. Rather than trusting my hands to make a silky dough out of flour and water, I use a food processor. I don’t own a thin tapered rolling pin, but have fine results with a heavy marble pastry pin. Rather than open flames on a gas stovetop, I cook the flatbread on a cast-iron skillet.
Bread connects the culture of the baker to that of the eater. I think about the beauty of this great cross-cultural common denominator whenever I roll a warm roti around a few cubes of pickled herring, or scoop up eggplant curry with a piece of lefse, merging two cultures into a delicious bite.
Patrice Johnson is a freelance writer from Roseville and a Nordic food cooking instructor.
Makes 12 (5-in.) rounds; about 6 servings.
Note: Roti is commonly made with whole wheat atta, which is a high-gluten flour and consists of 11.5 to 13 percent protein. The gluten makes the dough pliable and easier to roll very thin. Atta can be found at Indian grocery stores. As a substitute, use whole wheat bread flour when atta is not available. For more flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger, garlic or coriander to the flour before making the dough. From Rekha Bhatt and Ila Patel.
• 2 c. whole wheat atta or whole wheat bread flour (see Note)
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 2 tsp. vegetable oil
• 3/4 to 1 c. lukewarm water
• Clarified butter (also called ghee), melted (see below)
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir together flour and salt. Add the oil and slowly add water, using your hands to knead the mixture. Add only as much water as needed to form a craggy mixture that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead until smooth and silky. Cover with a kitchen cloth and let rest 10 minutes.
(To use a food processor: Fit with a metal blade and add flour and salt to the food processor bowl. Add oil and pulse while gradually adding enough of the water so that mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and forms a smooth dough. Remove from bowl and cover with a kitchen cloth; let rest 10 minutes.)
Divide dough into 12 equal parts, about the size of a walnut. Form each piece into a smooth ball and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. On a well-floured surface, roll each flattened ball into a 5-inch round.
To cook over gas flame: With flame on medium to medium low, place roti directly on flame. Use tong or chopsticks to turn for even cooking. After about 30 seconds, the bread will begin to char; flip and cook the other side in the same manner.
To cook on grill: Place roti over direct high heat. Use tong to turn for even cooking. After 1 to 2 minutes, bread will begin to char; flip and cook the other side in the same manner.
To cook on skillet or griddle: Preheat skillet to medium high. Place roti on ungreased surface about 1 to 2 minutes; flip and cook the other side in the same manner.
Cooked roti should have some dark brown spots when finished. As you remove each roti from the heat, stack darkest-side-down on plate and generously spoon a teaspoon or two of melted ghee over top of each roti. Serve warm.
To make clarified butter: Melt unsalted butter over medium-low heat. When completely melted, the butter will have three layers: foam at the top, milk solids at the bottom and the clarified butter inbetween. Bring the mixture to a simmer while the clarified butter becomes more fragrant and golden. Remove the pan from the heat and skim off the layer of foam at the top. Let the butter sit for a bit to settle. Then pour the golden clarified butter through a strainer into a clean jar, discarding the milk solids at the bottom of the pan.
Nutrition information per 2 roti:
Calories 225 Fat 11 g Sodium 200 mg
Carbohydrates 29 g Saturated fat 6 g Calcium 15 mg
Protein 6 g Cholesterol 22 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 2 bread/starch, 2 fat.
Faux Tamarind Chutney
Makes about 1 cup.
Note: This recipe evolved from an era in the U.S. when tamarind chutney — and tamarinds — were unavailable. From Rekha Bhatt.
• 1 c. apple butter
• 1 tsp. cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. cumin
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• Pinch of cayenne pepper
• Zest of 1/2 lemon, plus 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
In small mixing bowl, whisk all ingredients together. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving; store chilled up to a week.
Nutrition information per 1 tablespoon:
Calories 35 Fat 0 g Sodium 38 mg
Carbohydrates 9 g Saturated fat 0 g Calcium 5 mg
Protein 0 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 1 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: ½ fruit.