The Art of a Perfect Flatbread : Chapati

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.

chapati-stack

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.

attachapati1v

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 rolling

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.

meal w chapati

Chapati (Indian Flatbread)

Makes 6 thin flatbreads

1 cup of whole wheat durum flour (chapati atta)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Water

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.

chapati2vchapati2vv

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.

chapati ghee

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved

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44 Comments

  • Sandra: My mother in law makes chapati & methi thepla and puri puri filled with sweet lentils all for my daughter. One of her first words with chapati! She loves Indian breads so much that we can’t have them on the table unless she has started to eat her “real food” first.

    Since my in laws don’t live close by I would just like to add that these breads are great for freezing..just put a paper towels in the zip lock bag in between the chapati.

    Eat with lots of ghee.. July 29, 2016 at 7:30am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re right about freezing. Because they are so thin, they take hardly any time to defrost.

      And yes, ghee makes them even better. July 29, 2016 at 2:48pm Reply

  • epapsiou: Hmm. Rotla Shak dinner for you it seems Victoria July 29, 2016 at 8:12am Reply

    • Victoria: It was potato bhaji, as I recall. July 29, 2016 at 2:49pm Reply

  • Michaela: Right! 🙂 It’s a long time since I’m making whole wheat flour chapatis, which are not perfect, never puffed like in the video, but they still taste very very good. Love them. Maybe I’ll find the special flour and I’ll roll them better.
    Sometimes I mix some sesame seeds or cumin, or a bit of turmeric, or even some herbs in the dough. I like these variations, too.
    And I always have cc powder on hand, thanks to your recipe. It’s unique, yet so easy to make.

    I like the videos very much. Your mother in law is highly skilled. July 29, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Not all of mine puff up like this, but it doesn’t bother me. If you want them to puff up, you have to roll them out by stretching the dough, rather than pressing it out. Not sure how else to explain it. The movements are light. You can see how my MIL does it in the video. Needless to say, it takes some practice to get that technique down. But in the meantime you can still enjoy delicious chapati.

      Your variations also sound very good. July 29, 2016 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Jennifer: My mother in law is also amazing at making rotlis (what chapatis are called in the Gujarat region where my husband’s family is from). I’ve made them once on my own but the perfect roundness and thinness of hers I was nowhere near making. July 29, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: My mother-in-law is also from Gujarat. They have such a great cooking tradition there. July 29, 2016 at 2:54pm Reply

      • Sandra: So its my mother in law, though she was born in Uganda. July 31, 2016 at 1:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: Many Gujaratis were active in trade, so there used to be a big community in Uganda. Until the nationalist government came in. July 31, 2016 at 1:24pm Reply

          • Sandra: Yes, and then my MIL’s family got kicked out and went to India.. July 31, 2016 at 1:45pm Reply

            • Victoria: We had neighbors who experienced the same thing. They had to leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs. August 1, 2016 at 5:20am Reply

  • Crazycrooner: Making rotis is an art, especially that stage when it is so thin it fluffs up like an inflatable cushion. Despite being of South Asian origin I have not mastered it. They are thinner than Mexican taco bread.
    Whenever I make my own pizza dough, or granola, I am filled with such a satisfying sense of whole being. No wonder Serge Lutens uses the cereal accord in his new cologne EAu de Paille. July 29, 2016 at 10:23am Reply

    • Crazycrooner: What essential oil/absolute do you think comes close to capturing the waft of wheat/oatmeal? July 29, 2016 at 10:43am Reply

      • Victoria: Not sure, to be honest. Most wheaty, toasty notes come from pyrazines. July 29, 2016 at 2:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Rumali roti, the paper thin breads, are my other favorites. But they’re very hard to make at home. July 29, 2016 at 2:55pm Reply

      • Crazycrooner: They’re a regular in Punjabi households. Besides you, there is Gordon Ramsay who loves attempting at South Asian culinary feats! (I learnt to make curry by watching him!) July 29, 2016 at 7:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never tried his recipes. July 30, 2016 at 4:42am Reply

    • Caroline: Was there another Lutens with the bread accord? July 29, 2016 at 4:55pm Reply

      • Crazycrooner: Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau? July 29, 2016 at 7:05pm Reply

        • Victoria: I replied before I saw your comment, but that was the first one that came to mind. It was polarizing, I recall, but I found it comforting and compelling.

          Bois Farine by L’Artisan is another bread-like perfume I like. July 30, 2016 at 4:41am Reply

      • Victoria: Jeux de Peau was one. I also notice a mild toasty note in Santal Majuscule, but it also might be the effect of several notes, rather than any specific intention. July 30, 2016 at 4:40am Reply

  • Lifestyle Lodestar: My mother is indian, and this is such a staple in our house that I never thought to record the magical recipe of roti! I’m so glad you did because true Indian cuisine would just not be the same without it. The fact that it doubles up as cutlery is one of my many favourite things about it.
    My mother taught me the recipe but somehow hers are always perfect circles and mine slightly square…. ? July 29, 2016 at 10:40am Reply

    • Victoria: When my MIL rolls them out, she constantly moves the dough with her rolling pin, which makes the circle even. I make quarter turns, which is more comfortable, except that the shape is less perfect. July 29, 2016 at 2:57pm Reply

  • Joy: Loved this article, Victoria. Your photos are beautiful. I especially liked the photo of the strong fingers poised on the rolling pin. Such a beautiful image!

    I will try the recipe! July 29, 2016 at 12:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! She was moving so fast as she worked the dough. July 29, 2016 at 3:00pm Reply

  • AndreaR: Wonderful! Great to see how it’s done. Bread is certainly an international language. I love watching Mexican women pat the tortillas from hand to hand and the Italians tossing the pizza dough in the air. Now, thanks to your mother-in-law, I know how the chapati are made and good for you for recording the process. We take much of our family’s cooking/baking techniques for granted and then they’re gone. July 29, 2016 at 1:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree. Plus, it’s so much easier to record recipes and techniques today without ever needing sophisticated equipment. It’s interesting to reflect on how little this recipe must have changed over time. July 29, 2016 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Caroline: I watched the video showing how a chapatti puffs up five times already! Wow! July 29, 2016 at 4:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it mesmerizing? One of my favorite aspects of making chapati. July 30, 2016 at 4:39am Reply

  • Rani: Your MIL is a pro! 🙂

    My favourite Indian bread is naan especially with lots of butter. July 30, 2016 at 5:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Naan is irresistible, especially fresh out of the oven. July 30, 2016 at 11:31am Reply

  • Jacob: Thank you both for a great master-class. I’m very interested to try making chapatis myself. July 30, 2016 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you try it. It might be hard to get the perfect circle at first, but whatever the shape, they will taste delicious. It’s worth giving chapati a try. July 30, 2016 at 11:32am Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: What has been amazing me lately, Victoria, is the quality we are able to achieve, realize, enjoy, or produce, as your MIL does, of the gifts that exist in this world for our enjoyment and pleasure. There is never a reason to ‘settle’ for second best if a person truly has the desire to venture higher no matter what it is. I love your site. Thank you for Boisdejamin…xo July 30, 2016 at 10:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Lynn. I was also thinking recently when we made these breads together that one doesn’t need much to create something memorable. Plus, as a French saying goes, one great happiness consists of many small joys. July 30, 2016 at 11:35am Reply

  • Claire: Victoria, this is SO mouthwateringly delicious-looking! I’ve always loved Indian food, I’ve been known to invite myself whenever my good friend (who came from South India) had a visit of her mother over, because she made the best South Indian breakfast spread. My husband and son will devour any Indian bread in seconds… I never thought I could cook any Indian food until I discovered Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbook — now I think I can make somewhat decent Indian food. And Indian breads is another frontier to discover for me.

    Thank you so much for featuring your skillful MIL — just look at the uniform size of the chapatis! As for us, we’ll probably keep making lassi to take advantage of the last bits of summer (both mangoes and mint) and we can’t have enough of the freshly crushed cardamom pods — if I can only bottle this essence to be worn and used in cooking. July 30, 2016 at 1:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Indian cooking is easier than it appears, and apart from spices, you don’t need many other specialty ingredients. Of course, once you get into it, you want to discover Indian vegetables, sugars, flavorings, etc. But I’ve cooked Indian food at my grandmother’s, and her village doesn’t have anything like an Indian store.

      I’ve been making rose lassi over the past few days, and I was inspired by your comment on Instagram to make a peach variety. Peach, rose and cardamom sound very good together. July 31, 2016 at 7:34am Reply

      • Claire: Peach, rose and cardamom sounds heavenly! Do you use rose water to scent the lassi? I am still on the look out for the Mymoune Rose water, of course, per your recommendation of your old blog post. And I will try the orange juice variation, too!

        Also, on tangent, I came across a milky drink scented with rose/rose syrup. It is the most delicious, refreshing drink for the summer. Much like rose lassi, I’d imagine, but this one is sweetened, almost like melted ice cream in richness and sweetness, diluted with cubes of ice. I don’t know the origin of this drink, I came across this while visiting a friend in Singapore (of all places!). August 1, 2016 at 10:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve tried something like that in Malaysia, and while I could barely drink more than a couple of sips, it was delicious and highly perfumed. I think that I could make it less sweet, so I should try to look for a recipe.

          Yes, I use rosewater. Of course, you can use rose jam and reduce sugar, but rosewater will give a most intense flavor. August 2, 2016 at 8:07am Reply

  • uttara: My cooking is shining because you are taking keen interest in it. I wish all your readers success in making chapatti. aai August 16, 2016 at 1:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much! 🙂 August 17, 2016 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Rita: I tasted my first chapatti when I was in singapore. It was delicious, i can taste it now yum yum and now that i have the recipe i might just give it a go😋 August 19, 2016 at 4:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not too difficult, and whatever their shape, the results will be delicious. August 20, 2016 at 4:37am Reply

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