The word roti finds a mention in the Ramcharitamanas, the 16th century epic by Tulsidas. I would argue the reason of mentioning roti was to highlight the agrarian society in his poem. Chapati, roti or phulka is the everyday bread in most Indian diets and a perfectly puffed 'phulka' is known as balloon bread in the West. According to Indian Food: A Historical Companion a book by the late historian K.T. Achaya, “Cave paintings do show balls of dough being made, and in Harappan sites, flat metal and clay petals that could be tavas have been found in plenty, so the chapati could go back a long way."
The roti is a perfect example of an amalgamation of pancha mahabhuta, a term used in Ayurveda to signify five elements because of the way we treat the dough. The flour comes from earth, it is kneaded with water and incorporated with air for a fluffy texture and given rest for the gluten to get activated. Finally, it is then cooked on fire. These five elements work differently to create magic.
I was nine years old when I made my first dish, tori ki sabzi (snake gourd), under Ammi's guidance. While we were cooking, she felt a little unwell and decided to rest. To impress her, I took on the challenging task of making rotis for the very first time. Usually, my father would supervise, but he was not home that day. Despite my best efforts, the rotis rolled out to look like amoebas instead of perfect circles. I tried to adopt a clever hack and used a lid to give them a roundish shape, but it was all in vain. Ammi and Shabi (my brother) couldn't eat a morsel with those thick, undercooked and unsightly rotis. From then onwards, my pursuit of making perfect rotis and love for exploring Indian breads began.
To make a perfectly round roti, you do need some basic skill. For instance, when you are kneading the dough, it should not be very loose or tight, use some flour to help you roll them round, and most importantly try pushing the roti from the centre to the sides. This technique also helped me when I was competing on MasterChef India in 2016 and I had to roll 140 plus rotis in 40 minutes.
In India, we have a wide range of breads, particular to the region they have originated from, like khubba roti from the deserts of Rajasthan, akki roti from Karnataka, luchi from Kolkata, litti from Bihar, taftan from Awadh, sheermal from Delhi or roth from Kashmir. Each bread has its own story to tell, but the ingredients remain unchanged; flour and water (or milk) when kneaded together bring out different qualities and flavour in the bread depending on the kneading technique.
During and around Mughal era, we had the tradition of naanbais, bhatiyaars and sanjha chulhas in the north. Naanbais were the people with proper shops selling breads in bulk, and bhatiyaars supplied breads to households and were engaged in small enterprises with a community tandoor which was often used only to bake roti. While many of these age-old traditions around roti have disappeared, I was lucky to meet and interact with bhatiyaars who would visit our ancestral house in Bihar during Eid. They would come home in the evening and take the ingredients required to bring us freshly baked khamiri roti in the morning, wrapped in a red or green cloth. The bread would be paired with nihari aur qeema. I would wait for the bhatiyaar by the door to take the first whiff and lay the bread down on the dastarkhan.
It was this and many such incidences which made me realise the flavours of bread enhance the dining experience of the main dish, and makes your meal complete, or as we say it in Urdu—muqammal.
Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan. @hussainsadaf1