The Perfect Chapati

by Devyani Borade

We’re gathered around the dinner table—three generations of women standing over steaming bowls of chicken curry and fluffy rice, vegetables and dals and tiny pots filled to the brim with piquant chutneys, crispy pickles and savory sauces. But we don’t see any of this. Instead, all eyes are focused on the large conspicuous space in the center of the table where an empty plate resides, forlorn and cold.

“So, you’re going to serve them hot off the pan?” asks my mother, gazing contemplatively at the empty plate.
“Yes,” I say with a nod.
“You’re sure you can make them fast enough for everyone?” asks one sister.
“Of course.” “You’ll need help,” warns the other sister.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, shaking my head.
“Don’t burn them!” says my daughter with a giggle.

Since time immemorial, chapati—a humbler, homelier version of the more cosmopolitan naan—has been a staple on dinner tables across India. Made from ground whole wheat flour, chapati is unleavened bread that’s eaten alongside every type of curry. The starchy chapati forms the main basis of the meal against auxiliary vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy and various condiments. The word “chapati” comes from chappa, which means “flattened” in Tamil, and attai or paathi, which means “husband’s food.” The bread is also commonly known as roti, which is derived from the Sanskrit rotika, meaning bread.

Chapati has enjoyed a long and glorious culinary history, and over the course of several millennia, has been adapted and amended for many different palates. For example, when chapati is cooked in a stone oven or tandoor, it’s called tandoori roti. When combined with one or more flours of ground chickpea, maize or millet, it’s called missi roti. Chapatis made with pearl millet (bajra), maize (makka) or white millet (jowar) flour usually carry the name of the flour, as in bajra roti. A layered and fried avatar of chapati is called paratha and may have a filling such as spinach, fenugreek, radish, onion or potato and peas. And a chapati made incredibly thin and delicate like a handkerchief, or rumaal, is called a rumaali roti. In other countries, relatives of chapati are the Mexican tortilla, the Arabic khubz, the French crepe, the Jewish matzo, the Turkish yufka and the first-cousin-twice-removed Italian pizza. In the West Indies, roti is filled with chicken, shrimp and lentils; in Indonesia, it’s fried with an egg or drizzled with condensed milk; and in Trinidad, it’s beaten to resemble tattered cloth and called buss-up-shut (a colloquialism for “busted-up shirt”). It’s no surprise that, in one style or another, such a versatile food item has found its way onto the majority of world menus.

The art of making good chapati depends on a lot of variables: the quality of wheat flour and the quantity of water used; the amount of time the dough rests; the amount of dry flour used to dust the rolling surface; how the dough is rolled and the circularity of the disc; the temperature of the pan and the presence (or absence) of oil; how long each side of the chapati is cooked; and the technique used to flip the chapati onto and off of the pan. Even for a confident chef, it can take years of practice to get it right.

Another essential is the combination of rolling pin and rolling board—though in most cases, you can do without a rolling board if your kitchen countertop is smooth and clutter-free. Rolling pins come in various sizes and designs—I use one made from solid wood that’s buffed to a fine finish. Its streamlined shape spreads the dough evenly along the length of the pin with just the slightest bit of pressure—creating a chapati that’s uniformly flat all over instead of thick and thin in places.

When cooking chapati, the pan must be absolutely hot and smoking (a cold pan will make the chapati hard and rubbery and too difficult to chew), and a spot of oil goes a long way in keeping the pan greasy and nonstick. Once you’ve rolled the chapati into a circle, pinch up an end, quickly lift the whole disc so as to not break or fold it, and place it on the flat of your palm. Turn it over onto your other palm and swiftly pat it down onto the hot pan so that it spreads across the surface without breaking or folding. After a few seconds, the chapati will become toasted on one side and can be flipped.

Presentation is important: Chapati is served either folded in two halves or torn into quarters that are piled neatly on top of one another. If the pile appears lopsided or contains different sizes and shapes, it indicates the chef’s sloppiness and laziness. To eat, shred the chapati by hand and pinch each piece between your forefinger and thumb to form a small spoon with which to scoop up a bit of curry. You can then dip it into yogurt, sauce, chutneys or pickles, or top it with a sliver of crispy raw onion before popping into your mouth. In fact, the only way I’ve never seen chapati eaten is with a knife and fork. Perhaps that day isn’t far off, though. Meanwhile, the world’s love affair with chapati continues strong.

As for our family dinner that evening, filling the glaring hole in the table turned out to be a piece of cake. And the icing—hot off the griddle and dripping with ghee—was the perfect chapati.