Chapati, also known as roti, is the most popular bread in India (in addition to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia where Indians have set foot). Save for the southern states where rice is the main starch, flatbreads are the staple in other areas of India. Freshly off the pan, chapati is one of the most delicious things you can eat, and all of my Indian culinary highlights include it in one form or another. Although I don’t cook Indian food daily, chapati is a frequent presence on our dinner table. Made with whole wheat flour, water and a tiny bit of oil, it’s versatile enough for a variety of accompaniments, from prosciutto and mozzarella to avocado and shrimp salad. It’s also perfect on its own with a dab of salted butter.
Watching my mother-in-law turning out chapatis with lightning speed, I decided to record the process for a masterclass. You’ll find two short videos below. My mother-in-law is quite modest about her talents, but she’s one of the most accomplished cooks I’ve met, with an innate feeling for flavors and interesting combinations. (I know that some of you have made the cc powder already–that’s another one of her lessons.) You need to turn out hundreds of chapatis before yours will look as perfect as hers, but it doesn’t matter. Even if your chapati is closer in shape to the outline of India than a circle, it will still taste just as good.
Chapati is made with whole wheat durum flour. It’s available from Indian stores as atta or chapati flour, and it’s more finely milled than European durum flour. Even if you’ve never worked with dough before, this flour will make for a good introduction. The dough comes together in a matter of minutes, and it doesn’t require long kneading. Chapati dough doesn’t include salt, because they’re typically eaten with other dishes. Salt also makes the dough more difficult to knead, so I don’t include it.
To cook chapati, you need a dry cast-iron pan, called a tava. Any cast-iron pan will do, but again, the Indian store is the best source of inexpensive tavas. I don’t like the tavas with a non-stick coating, because to make chapati, the pan needs to be preheated dry.
Chapati can be simply cooked on both sides, or you can precook it on one side, and then with the uncooked side facing down, transfer it to a rack set over a burner and let the bread puff up. It will deflate once it cools, but this technique creates a handy pocket that can be stuffed. If you’re making chapati for the first time, only a few of them will puff up fully, but either way, they will taste delicious.
Another tip I’ve picked up in the course of my chapati making: Mexican tortilla containers are perfect to keep chapati soft and warm. Whatever you use–a tortilla warmer or a regular lidded container, keep cooked chapati covered, otherwise the thin breads dry out and become leathery. The flatbreads freeze well. To reheat, sprinkle with water, wrap in foil and place in a warm oven for a few minutes.
Chapati (Indian Flatbread)
Makes 6 thin flatbreads
1 cup of whole wheat durum flour (chapati atta)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Mix flour with oil and add enough water to make soft, pliable dough. Add water little by little, since chapati flour is slow to absorb it. Knead dough until it’s smooth. Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
Divide the dough into 6 portions and shape each into a ball. Dip the ball of dough into flour and roll into a thin circle (about 6-7 inches in diameter) on a lightly floured surface.
Heat a cast-iron pan (tava) on high heat and when hot, carefully place the rolled out bread in the center.
Cook it until small blisters appear on the surface, about 2 minutes. Turn over the chapati. Use a wooden spoon to press the surface and make it puff up. Or, uncooked side down, put directly over a high flame for a few seconds. If it was rolled correctly, chapati will swell into a balloon.
Keep the cooked chapati covered as you roll and cook the subsequent ones. Once the whole stack is cooked, rub each chapati with a little bit of butter or ghee, clarified butter.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved