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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

KaiJuly 8, 2023

Make roti, not naan

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Some things are best left to the professionals, and naan is one of them – but that doesn’t mean you can’t add a delicious Indian flatbread to your culinary repertoire. Perzen Patel explains how.

“I made Indian food at home on the weekend,” my friend at work told me.

“Yeah? What did you cook?” I asked.

“A paneer saag using your saagwala paste and butter garlic naan,” she tells me, before admitting that while the paneer saag only took 15 minutes, the naan was way harder than she expected.

By the time the food got to the table, she was exhausted. Plus, the kids barely touched the naan because they weren’t as fluffy as the ones in the restaurant.

My heart sank. I’m very familiar with the feeling of spending hours cooking something and not having it turn out like you were expecting in your head. It makes you not want to try again.

And, that’s going to almost always happen with naan – a leavened, tear-drop-shaped flatbread – when you make it at home.

Naan is like Indian film actresses Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra. They are on the international stage. Outside of India, they are very popular; you’ll see them at all major film festivals. But back home in Bollywood, they are far from being the most talented or popular.

Similarly, almost every Indian restaurant in New Zealand and overseas serves naan. That doesn’t mean you should make them at home.

Indians don’t actually eat that much naan.

Naan is why I eat Indian food at a restaurant twice a year, even though I know that most of the food I’ll eat will be mediocre. I go there to scoop up my creamy dahl makhani with a piece of thick, smoky, garlicky naan. While pillowy naan tastes great dunked with Indian curries, the amount of flour and ghee used makes them unhealthy to eat with every meal.

It’s time-consuming to make at home one at a time. Also, without a tandoor – the large, clay, charcoal-fired oven – they never taste light and fluffy like the real thing. I could cook an entire week’s worth of Indian lunches in the time it would take me to make 10 naan.

Roti (aka chapati), on the other hand, is made in almost all Indian homes. Every day. In some homes, with every meal.

Everyone eats it. Rich, poor, healthy, sick, children, adults. Made from wholewheat flour rather than all-purpose flour, roti is an unleavened flatbread that comes together in minutes. Roti is to Indians what pasta is to Italians.

We love it so much that someone even invented a 3D roti-printing machine that my next-door neighbour paid $2,500-plus for. While I don’t own a roti machine, I did have some roti privilege. Growing up in Mumbai, a maid came to our home just to make us roti.

Grandpa had organised so she’d come to our home at 3.30pm, just when I came home from school. She’d get the dough ready as I would change out of my uniform. And just as she got the first few rotis off the tava, I’d come to steal two hot rotis. Each would get a thick slather of butter before I sprinkled on some sugar, rolled it into a tight cigar and hungrily gobbled them up.

I took roti for granted because someone in my life has always made them for me. I only started my roti-making experimentation last year when my school-aged kiddo fell in love with roti and demanded alphabet roti for his school lunchbox.

Alphabet cookie cutters to the rescue! (Photo: Perzen Patel)

When you get started, roti can feel hard to make too. But that’s the learning curve and not the flatbread itself.

Krish Ashok shares a great scientific explanation for making the perfect roti in his book Masala Lab. The trick lies in using a hydration model, like the one bakers use for sourdough, to make your roti dough. Ashok shares, “If you are new to roti making, start with 80% hydration and work your way up to 100% hydration as you get comfortable.”

For roti rookies like you and me, that’s 80g water for every 100g flour. He had a few other tips, which I’ve included for you in the recipe below.

When I tried making roti using this formula, I made soft, chewy roti that fluffed up on the tava and held their own when I dunked them in dahl and curry alike. They were not perfectly round, but who cares?

(It’s important to note here that Indian roti is not the same as the Malaysian Roti Canai which is made with regular flour and is flakier.)

Practising my roti every weekend has made me faster. Not as fast as my cook Oberoi (named after the five-star hotel in Mumbai), but they get done by the time I’m done with my weekly two vegetables, one curry meal prep. I make the dough twice a week and store it in my fridge. Then, whenever I feel like eating some, I roll out a few, cook them on my tava and have a perfect accompaniment for my dahl, masala potatoes, or even to wrap some leftover roast chicken in.

The next time you’re tempted to make naan, make roti instead. It will go perfectly with whatever Indian dish you’re cooking up, whether that’s a curry, some paneer or even butter chicken.

How to make roti at home (makes about 15)

  • Wholewheat flour – Aashirvad Aata is the best
  • Warm water
  • Oil
  • Salt
  • Ghee

Optional equipment: A good tava will serve you well both for dosas and for roti-making.

Mix the flour and warm water using an 80% hydration ratio to make your dough. That’s 80g of warm water for every 100g of flour. Mix the flour and water and roughly bring it to a shaggy mix till there are no dry bits of flour.

Important step: let this sit for 30 minutes. Both warm water and resting trigger gluten development which is the reaction that gives your roti a good chew.

After 30 minutes, add salt to the dough. Add a bit of oil and knead the dough until it’s slick and shiny.

If you’re storing the dough, sprinkle some more flour on it and store it in an air-tight container in the fridge (fine for 3-4 days).

Divide the dough into small balls.

Before rolling out your roti, cover the surface you plan to use with a silicon baking sheet. Also, heat up your tava or other flat, pancake-making pan, ensuring you use the highest heat setting on your stove.

Dip the dough ball in some dry flour and then start rolling it out on your silicone baking sheet into a thin circle using a rolling pin. Go as thin as you can, flipping the roti a couple times so it doesn’t stick. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle it with dry flour to help you with the rolling.

Place the roti on the hot tava and cook on both sides until dark brown spots appear and it fluffs up a little.

Remove the roti onto a plate, and top with ¼ teaspoon ghee.

Keep stacking the rotis on top of one another until you’re done.

Important step: allow to cool slightly and then store in an airtight container to prevent drying out.

Keep going!