The very first chapati I ever had was not very good.
Mind you, it was made by an American friend whose cooking skills were less than impressive, from a recipe from an American vegetarian cookbook (one of the older ones where the recipes tended toward the “less-than-delicious vegetarian glop dishes” that used to be the norm way back in the day) by a cookbook author whom I am certain probably never tasted a well-made chapati in her life.
The first one I tasted I ate out of politeness, because it was a dry, cardboard-like affair that I could not imagine ANYONE in her right mind liking–much less an entire subcontinent of people not only liking it, but eating it often. I didn’t even get why anyone would call it a bread–it was more like a somewhat pliable cracker.
So that experience kept me from trying a proper chapati for years.
But, the chapati I had made in the hands of a good cook was pretty good, so I could at least see why people liked them. However, compared to the glories that were naan, bhatura and poori–I didn’t find myself craving chapati.
Until I had a truly flakey, tender and delicious version, one that was subtly scented with spices and had an elusive nutty flavor that I soon recognized as coming not only from the usual whole wheat flour, but also some besan–toasted chickpea flour.
After tasting those chapati–I changed my mind about the formerly humble griddle baked flatbreads and decided I had to figure out how to make ones that tasted just like the ones at my favorite restaurant.
And so, I did.
My first task was to research recipes.
I looked online, but found no recipes that sounded exactly right, so I started digging through my three shelves of Indian cookbooks.
I found what I was looking for in one of oldest cookbooks–Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, which is one of the cookbooks that taught me many of my first Indian recipes. Copyright 1980, this older book with very few illustrations and no photographs is truly a classic in the best sense of the word–and Sahni, the author, is not only very knowledgeable about Indian cookery, she is deftly able to put her knowledge onto paper in the form of step-by-step instructions easy enough for a beginner to follow without the benefit of illustrations.
What I found in Sahni’s tome is a recipe for “Besan ki Roti”, or chickpea flour flat bread. The spices she used in her recipe were not what I was aiming for, and the method she used for rolling out the dough would not result in as flaky a bread as I wanted (but I wasn’t worried about that as I had a pretty good idea as to how to make the breads flaky my own self–because I knew how to make flaky Chinese scallion pancakes, and was going to use the same technique here).
I also ended up adding a little bit of yogurt and ghee to the dough itself to tenderize it further–according to Sahni, the besan makes the dough stiffer and chewier than just using the usual durum atta flour that most cooks use to make chapati. Knowing well the tenderizing properties of fats and dairy products in bread dough, I decided to add some–and it turned out to be the correct decision.
Finally, instead of the usual method of cooking a chapati, which consists of baking for a few seconds on a flat, hot cast iron griddle, then passing it over on an open fire, I added a third technique–a short steaming (about 10-20 seconds) wrapped in a napkin in the microwave.
The result is a very flaky, tender, delicious chapati, just like the title of this post says. They are nutty, subtly scented with fenugreek and cumin and have a delicious nutty flavor and aroma, thanks to the small amount of besan. They taste perfect with any Indian dish–but I particularly like it with channa masala and safaid keema mattar.
The truth is, these chapati would be good with ANY Indian dishes. And even though my explanation of the technique is going to sound long, involved and difficult–it really isn’t. It takes longer to explain how to make these flatbreads than it does to make them. After I got the hang of it, I could cook a chapati, from pinching the bit of dough from the ball to rolling it out, rolling it up, rolling it out again, cooking it on the griddle, then over the fire, then in the microwave, in two minutes flat, give or take a second or two. One the rhythm is established, your hands will be able to go fast as lightning, and you will find yourself able to make a pile of these little breads for your friends and family in no time.
2 cups whole wheat chapati flour or regular whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup besan flour
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ghee
1 tablespoon Greek style yogurt
1 1/8 cup to 1 1/4 cuo warm water (start with smaller measure, use more as needed)
all purpose flour for rolling out
melted ghee for rolling out
Either the morning of the evening you want your chapati or the night before, mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
Oil your hands with a small amount of canola oil or ghee so the dough will not stick as you mix and stir the dough.
Stir in the ghee and yogurt with your fingers until mixture is crumbly, with a few little lumps like happens with a very shaggy pastry dough before you add the water. (Alternately, you can use a fork to mix in the ghee and yogurt, but I find it easier to just use my fingers to rub it in.)
Slowly stir in the water, mixing with your hand until the dough firms up enough to knead. Once the dough is firm, yet still slightly sticky, begin kneading with both hands until the dough is elastic and and smooth, yet still a bit tacky to the touch. (Not so sticky that it clings to your fingers, just not dry and silky like most yeast doughs are supposed to be after they are kneaded. It should just feel like it wants to grab onto your finger, but it doesn’t actually do it.)
Put the dough into a ziplock bag, and place in the fridge to rest for at least three hours, though, I like it best if I make the dough the night before and let it rest until lunch or dinnertime the next day. For whatever reason, the dough rested longer is much more pliable and soft when baked up than the fresher dough made just a few hours before and rested at room temperature.)
Remove the dough from the fridge about a half hour before you are ready to cook some chapati, then turn the dough out onto a flour-dusted surface, and knead it gently to warm it up and to dry up any surface moisture with the extra flour.
Now, there are two ways you can go about dividing the dough into little balls ready to be rolled into flatbreads. The way you are supposed to do it is to roll the dough in your hands into a big ball, then cut that in half. Set aside one piece of dough and seal it back up in the ziplock to keep it fresh and moist. The other piece of dough, you roll into a snake about 15 inches or so long and cut that into 12 equal pieces. Then you roll each of those pieces into a perfect ball and cover the ones you are not working with to keep them from drying out.
Or…you could be lazy like I got as I experimented with a couple of different batches of dough and just pull off a chunk of dough and roll it into a ball in your palms and call it good, while leaving the rest of the big dough ball covered. Having done it both ways, it works fine either way.
Then, you take your dough ball and flatten it into a disk between your palms. Make it look like a little UFO. Very cute, right? Then, you dust flour onto the rolling surface and set your disk down. Dust your rolling pin with flour and roll that disk out into as perfect a circle as you can manage, as thin as you can manage. Turn the dough a quarter turn between rollings if you want a perfect perfect circle, if you don’t care, just roll it out in different directions until you get a very thin (less than 1/8″ thick) roundish sheet of dough.
Brush with a little bit of melted ghee. Please do not go overboard with this. Just use a little bit. (In your head, or out loud, sing the backup singers’ part of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,”–”Just a little bit, just a little bit, just a little bit–sockittome,sockittome….” etc. This helps you remember to go easy on the ghee.)
Then…start rolling that flat bread dough disk into a cigar or another snake like shape with your fingers. It won’t want to do this easily–ignore it and endeavor to persevere, and you will end up with a cylinder of dough before you know it. Stretch that dough out by pulling at either end and then spiral it inward upon itself into a snail or rosette shape, making it a flat disk once again, but this time, with a spiral design on it. Pinch the end to and along the spiral to hold it together–just nip the edges together with your fingers.
Then, dust it and the rolling surface with flour, dust your rolling pin and roll it out flat again.
Now, that all sounds very hard, but really, it takes much longer to explain and write it down than it does just to do it. Trust me. If you want more explanations of the technique, read my recipe for Scallion Pancakes.
Set your pancake aside on a lightly flour dusted surface and roll out another one. While you are rolling out a second chapati, start heating up your griddle.
Now, in India, these are cooked on a flat, round cast iron griddle called a tava. Not having one of those, I used a heavy cast iron skillet. You could also use a cast iron griddle, or even a cast iron Dutch Oven if that’s all you have, but whatever you use, make it a heavy, well-seasoned cast iron pan. If you don’t have cast iron, you should–go out and get a cast iron skillet and season and treat it well and your cooking will improve vastly. They aren’t that expensive, and if you’re lucky, you can find an old, blackened, well seasoned one in a relatives cupboard, forgotten and unused, or you can get one at a yard sale.
Anyway, I digress. Put your cast iron cooking surface on the burner and turn the heat up to high. Let it heat. Then, turn on the burner next to or behind that pan and just let it go. If you don’t have gas–you can still do this with electric, but it won’t have that fire-cooked aroma. But it will still work, so long as you have your burners on high.
Now, you need two other cooking implements. A spatula for flipping the chapati over on the griddle or skillet surface, and a set of tongs for picking it up and holding it over the live fire or the naked electric burner. Have these ready to hand. Also have a plate with a cotton napkin (or a paper towel) on it big enough to fold over the chapati at the ready.
After you’ve rolled the second chapati, put the first one right onto the pre-heated cast iron cooking surface. Do not use grease, ghee or oil. Just the hot pan. In mere seconds it will cook on the first side. Flip it over with the spatula and you should see speckly brown spots on that side as pictured above at the beginning of the recipe. Leave it on the other side for a couple of seconds and then use the tongs to pick up the chapati and hold it over the flame or the hot naked burner. Flip it back and forth, this way and that, and watch in amazement as it finishes cooking and even puffs up in places. Isn’t that the coolest? It is.
After flipping it around over the fire for a few seconds–about ten or so total–don’t drop it in the fire and let it burn! After that, put it on the plate, fold the napkin over and microwave it on high for a mere 10-20 seconds. Remove, unwrap, brush one side with melted ghee and fold into quarters than put in a basket lined with a napkin and cover it up to keep it warm.
Continue cooking, then rolling and etcetera until you have enough chapati for a first serving for your family and friends. After that, turn off the burners and serve everything hot–it’s easiest to put the rice, curries and raitas and whatnot on the table first, have everyone fix their plates and sit down, then go and cook the chapati and bring them out all at once. If, after eating one chapati, folks want more, you can go and cook more, or teach them how to do it. You can roll, they can cook and everyone can be fat and happy.
That’s it. I promise that it sounds harder to do than it is–and the results are so worth the trouble of learning how to make these lovely little flatbreads that are nothing like the first unfortunate example I ate nearly twenty years ago in a friend’s kitchen.
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