When Himachali home chef Nitika Kuthiala tasted pita for the first time, it reminded her of a bread she had grown up eating. “It is exactly like the Pahadi thothroo,” she says. Kuthiala is on a mission to promote Himachali cuisine with her Noida-based home chef venture Pahadi Pattal thalaunched in June. Her menu features traditional Himachali dishes such as channa aloo madra (potatoes and chickpeas cooked in a curd-based gravy), mittha bhaat (rice cooked in sugar syrup with dry fruits) and breads like bhaturoo made with a starter native to the hills, called maleda.
Maleda, just like the sourdough starter, needs only two ingredients—flour and water. The only difference is the texture and maturation process. While the sourdough starter is slightly runny and matured over several days, maleda is a dense dough which is left to ferment overnight or for a few hours. In sourdough-making tradition, the starter culture can be preserved for weeks and even passed on from family to family and across generations. The maleda, however, is made fresh when breads are on the menu. The reason cannot be attributed to process alone; Himachal’s traditional food culture is influenced by spiritual practices too. As Kuthiala explains: “Fresh food is considered spiritually significant. Himachal is known as devbhumi (land of the gods) and we offer fresh food to God before our meals. A bread starter left over for several days is considered improper, even as an ingredient, for such offerings.”
The traditional fermentation methods for maleda are fascinating. Warm weather, like late spring and summer, accelerate the fermentation process, but long cold wintry days call for hacks unique to the hills. Kuthiala says: the maleda container is wrapped in layers of thick woollen Himachali shawls, known as pattu, or blankets to create enough heat for fermentation. To hasten this process, ingredients like curd, buttermilk or industrial yeast can be introduced. YouTube has a few recipes of Himachali breads made with industrial yeast. But, it is not wholly preferred by those who stick to cooking traditions. Also, most Himachali breads are made with wheat and not maida or refined flour.
Maleda kneaded with wheat flour makes a variety of breads such as bhaturoo, siddoo and thothroo. Bhaturoo is popular fare during feasts and on special occasions. Deep fried like a puri, it is made plain or stuffed with split urad dal or seasonal vegetables. Simple sautéed potato bhaji, pickles and chutney accompany bhaturoos. Siddoos are steamed breads, shaped like a half-moon, similar to karanji, and popular in Kullu and Shimla. They are stuffed with poppy seeds seasoned with green chillies and coriander.
Thothroos are a regular affair because they are light and easy to digest. Shaped like small phulkas, they are kneaded with only three ingredients—wheat flour, maleda and water. Once the dough is ready, it is broken into small pieces to make thoothroos. The dough is turned into small rotis (about 5-cm in diameter) by gently patting it between hand palms. “Be gentle to preserve the microbes,” says Kuthiala. A rolling pin is avoided because the dough is slightly sticky. Then it is roasted on a tawa (griddle) and served with fried pakoras, or pakoroos in Himachali.
“The concept is similar to falafel. Our pakoroos are slices of potatoes or a vegetable such as bottle gourd, coated in besan (chickpea flour) and deep-fried in mustard oil. Pita is paired with hummus and salad, while we have pickles, chutneys and cucumber pieces streaked with salt and chilli powder,” says Kuthiala, adding, “Ripe mangoes, abundantly grown in south Himachal, are also served with thothroos and relished with ghee and salt.”
Nitika Kuthiala’s Thothroo Recipe
250g wheat flour
One-third cup water
1 kg wheat flour
2-3 tbsp maleda
Water for kneading
Knead wheat flour and water to form a thick pasty dough. Remember to add water sparingly so that the dough is not too runny. Place it in a container and cover. Allow it to rest overnight in the kitchen, preferably in a warm area.
Knead all three ingredients to make a firm dough (roti-dough like consistency).
Place in a container, cover with a cloth and leave undisturbed for 2-3 hours.
Break dough into small ladoo-sized balls. Shape with hands by gently patting between palms to form phulkas about 5cm in diameter.
Cook on a tawa. Serve hot.