All sorrows are less with bread. ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
The chapati may be the original bread…flat, without yeast and prepared over open fires. The technique has been used for millennia and is adaptable to many different cooking circumstances, such as hot stones, coals or open flame. The art of chapati making is often meditative and conducive for simple, yet elegant meals that focus on fresh and local flavors.
My first exposure to Indian food started in Cleveland in 1972. The marvelously flexible and flavorful bread was served at the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays. Soon, I became a regular, helping to make hundreds of chapatis in the clean and unpretentious kitchen that once belonged to John D. Rockefeller’s daughter. I was shown proper ratios of flour, water and oil along with the best methods for making the dough by hand. Taking on the job of kneading, I also learned how the dough was similar to the clay I was working with in pottery class at school. Kneading and resting the dough were important for good chapatis: Ten minutes of kneading, then fifteen minutes of resting. Sometimes, we would change the technique and “age” the dough in water overnight, which made the dough elastic and with a slight tang. Often, we would seek the help of Indian women who learned the art of chapati making in early childhood. I marveled how they deftly handled the thin rolling pins, turning a ball of dough into evenly rolled, thin, flat and perfectly round breads in a matter of seconds. A talent passed on from mother to daughter for millennia, vividly displayed with fluid hand movements and perfectly puffed breads.
Living in the Northern Indian town of Vrndavan, I was immersed in a culinary yoga which maintained a strong emphasis on the balance between chapatis, rice, dahls and subjis. The total chapati experience was revealed with the invite to lunch in local homes where I was able to witness this sweet perfection of Indian hospitality. First and foremost, Vaishnava Hindu households always made a small portion as an offering to Vishnu first, thus “spiritualizing” the food and stressing the importance role food play in a life. In a social setting, this was rarely shared with company, as the guest was made to feel as they were the only object of attention. In my case, a desire to learn about food often brought extra demonstrations and detailed information about the preparation of food. The menu was usually simple local fare such as mung dahl, basmati rice studded with black cardamom, a subji such as begun sak (eggplant and spinach) and, of course, a steaming fresh chapati. Not just warm, but cooked to perfection, puffed up with a small vent of steam pouring out the top, just at the very moment the bread was placed on my plate. As my fingers lifted the last morsel of tender bread off the plate, another fresh, perfectly prepared chapati would be placed in front of me…the steam swirling and beckoning. This gastronomical ritual would continue until my belly could consume no more. The most amazing part was that these experiences were merely daily lunches. The sophistication of the food, high etiquette and attention to detail were simply how life was lived.
A “white” whole wheat flour works well. The best flour to use is the durum whole wheat “atta” flour sold at Indian import stores.
To make this recipe vegan, place the chapatis directly in a covered container to keep the steam in.
The chapatis will retain moisture and be soft for serving.