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In Chase of the Chapati

By Sayalee Karkare
February 11th 2012
Over the ages, the Indian cuisine has evolved to accommodate the tastes and preferences of its inhabitants and wayward rulers, the caprices of its seasons and the tentative but inevitable experimentation that occurs when a diverse group of people eat together. With the passage of time, it has undergone a series of changes, most of which, have only enhanced its flavour and richness. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the adaptability of the Indian cuisine is the Chicken Tikka Masala appropriated by England (among other things) as its one “true national dish”, because it combines the Chicken Tikka, an Indian invention, with gravy, a British preference. Despite this friendly and compliant attitude of most cuisine in the Sub-continent, there exists however, one item that has proved remarkably resistant to change: the humble chapati.

Anyone who has had even the most tenuous contact with India has heard of the chapati. The chapati, a flat, unleavened Indian bread made from wheat flour (atta) is a staple food in India. In fact, the word “chapati” refers to the form of the chapati which is flat or “chapat”. It goes by many names such as “roti” or “rotla”, depending on the region, but just like the rose, the chapati by any other name would taste as … So what exactly does the chapati taste like? The chapati, like most breads, is somewhat bland, but extended chewing could result in residuary sweetness. Often it is mixed or stuffed with seasonal vegetables and spices to add flavour, also known as the “parantha”. Outside of the Sub-continent, people tend to be more familiar with the “naan”, a fluffier, more luxurious version of the chapati.

Of all Indian delicacies, from the aromatic pilau, to the myriad “sabjis”, from the milky kheers to the gulab jamuns, each is amenable to the use of utensils such as the spoon and the fork, but not the chapati. There exists simply no other way to eat the chapati except by hand, preferably the right hand for reasons of hygiene. What is, however, most intriguing about the chapati is not just its resistance to the use of western cutlery, but that ever since its invention in the Neolithic age, it has barely changed in the entire 4000 years of its existence.

Flat breads the world over are the most ancient of breads, eaten before leavening agents such as yeast were discovered. It is the Egyptians who are credited to have experimented with yeast in bread-making and the result was a fluffy, raised bread, lighter than anything anyone had ever tasted before. The use of yeast in food preparations, notably in bread and beer, spread across the ancient world in the middle ages and became firmly entrenched in Europe. Today, Germany boasts of having the largest variety of breads in the world with over 300 kinds of basic breads.

The use of yeast in bread-making operations is no minor trifle, as it made possible many later developments, central to food and life in the West. The advantages of yeast lie mainly in the fact that it allowed breaking-making operations to be centralised, leading to the rise of bakeries. The public bakery marked a revolution in how bread began to be produced and distributed. Instead of baking bread at home, most households began to buy bread from the friendly, neighbourhood baker. Over the course of centuries, individual bread-making was all but abandoned. Today, baking bread at home is seen more as a quaint activity or a pleasurable past time to be indulged in on weekends, rather than as a tedious task to be performed out of necessity.

For reasons unknown, the method of baking bread using yeast has escaped India altogether. The absence of yeast in Indian breads is a curious fact, not least because fermentation as a food preparation technique is no stranger to the region. In fact, so deeply entrenched is the ancient chapati that most Indians feel appalled at the prospect of consuming “bread” on a regular basis. Within traditional Indian circles, bread has acquired something of a notoriety, so much so that consumption of bread, even brown bread, has been associated with “Westernization”.

Whatever be the reasons for the aversion to bread, preparation of the chapati continues to be an elaborate affair. It can take up to 30 minutes to prepare a simple meal with chapatis for a family of five, an activity which is repeated three times a day. A rough estimate reveals that over 2.4 billion chapatis are prepared each day to feed 800 million Indians, for whom chapatis are an integral part of their daily diet. This innocent but excessive love of the chapati can often have unintended consequences.

For starters, the majority of the chapati-making burden falls on the Indian housewife. The ability to make perfectly rounded, light, fluffy chapatis is considered a hallmark of good Indian wifeliness and consequently, despite having a very hectic schedule, it is not uncommon to find Indian women waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare fresh chapatis for the entire family.

To aid the overburdened Indian woman, a substantial number of Indian homes employ domestic help, whose chief task is to roll out hot, fresh chapatis during family meal times. This too has its disadvantages as the intrusion of an outsider on a daily basis can often create strained family dynamics, not to mention over-reliance on domestic help. In urban areas, many entrepreneurial housewives sell chapatis to their working counterparts at the rate of Rs. 3-4 per chapati. However, this is not a long-lasting solution given the perishable nature of the chapati and eventually, most local chapati-making enterprises reach an inevitable cap in their operations.

For those who cannot or do not want to employ domestic help, there do exist other alternatives on the market, such as the roti-maker, an electric contraption for roasting flattened chapati dough or deep-frozen chapatis. Most purists, however, resist any form of modern assistance to the traditional method of chapati preparation. Not for them the conveniences of electricity or modern refrigeration! In fact, thanks to the chapati fundamentalists, there exists a minor black market in chapatis, wherein chapatis are prepared “fresh” by doting members of the extended family in India and, via travelling relatives, transported to remote locations in the US, UK and Europe.

Indian cooking in general is time-consuming and requires tremendous attention to detail – its prime bread, the chapati, stands testimony to this fact. It is no wonder then that chapati-making remains a chore, an activity to be performed quickly and mechanically, leaving hardly any room for enjoyment. All things considered, there is a lot to be gained by eating other more easily-prepared kinds of food, most of all time and labour. Once families get used to the absence of the chapati on a daily basis, the making of the chapati will be a special event, like the Christmas cake, or homemade ice-cream – a rather complicated activity that requires the entire family to collaborate, in order to truly appreciate the joys of a freshly-cooked, hot, handmade chapati.

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