My nanima (Kamla) has been making rotis with love since she was a little girl. She remembers watching the women of her village in North India using a chakki (traditional grinding stone) to grind the wholemeal wheat into flour. When my nanaji (grandfather) was alive, he would only eat rotis which were served hot, straight off the tawa (traditional frying pan). Nanaji enjoyed his rotis just as they are traditionally eaten in India, as a staple side dish to scoop up the main dishes, or a bowl of ghiya yoghurt. Before my nanaji was married, he lived with his brother and they would resourcefully use a milk bottle to roll out his chapattis, as they didn’t have a rolling pin!
In recent years, there has been a growing demand for ready-made (and frozen) chapattis, because of the technique and practice required in making them from scratch. In fact, these flatbreads, made with simple ingredients, are simple to whip up at home. Nothing beats homemade rotis with Indian food, and nanima insists this is a skill to master. There is a particular art to mastering soft, fluffy rotis that puff up – even though nanima other dadimas I have learnt from, make it look effortless! If you’ve never made them before, and are hosting a dinner party, I strongly suggest that you practice them a few times beforehand. Work out a little production line so that you can have one roti at the ready whilst the other is cooking (don’t stack them up – put each on a separate plate). If you’re more confident, roll the next roti out whilst one is cooking. If your roti doesn’t puff up, feels heavy, and is tough when torn, just keep on practicing – it’s a bit like learning to ride a bike. Chapatti flour is available in most good supermarkets. Traditionally it’s made using wholemeal flour which is finely ground, but different varieties are available nowadays. Nanima always buys a medium chapatti flour (made with equal amounts of white and wholemeal flour), and as her granddaughter, I follow her lead.
If you have a dough mixer at home, it won’t take long to make the atta (Punjabi for dough). If not, roll up your sleeves, grab a large mixing bowl, and knead by hand. You should prepare the dough in advance so that it has time to rest. Rotis themselves taste best served hot and freshly cooked, but not everyone is as fussy as my late grandfather.
Have fun practicing and keep going until you get your roti to ‘puff up’ like nanima Nanima’s!
Makes: 7 rotis
300g medium chapatti flour, plus around 100g extra in a flat bowl for dusting and coating
200-210ml lukewarm water
Half teaspoon rapeseed oil, to oil the bowl in which the dough is stored
Butter, to coat the chapattis
You will need: small tea towel, tongs to flip the rotis, a rolling pin and a flat chapatti pan (tawa), a dough mixer if you don’t want to knead by hand.
Preparing the atta (dough):
1. If you are kneading the dough by hand, add the chapatti flour to a mixing bowl – this needs to be a large one with a wide flat base to give you room to knead (Nanima uses a stainless steel parat, a traditionally Indian wide-based shallow mixing bowl). Gradually add the water, making scooping motions around the bowl with one hand, to mix the water and flour together. You won’t go wrong as long as you pour the water slowly so that you can gauge how your dough is coming together. You’re looking for a texture which is firm and soft, but not sticky. If the dough is sticking to your hands too much, you’ll need to add a bit more flour, but do this gradually so that you have control over the texture.
2. Time for some hardcore kneading, now that your dough is fully formed. My dadima uses a special kneading technique, taught to her by her mother, which you may want to try: make a ‘thumbs-up’ gesture with one hand, and clench your thumb around it with your other hand, so that your fists are locked together. Align your knuckles, and firmly rock your fists into the dough, working your way from the bottom of the dough to the top so it flattens out. It’s your very own hand-rolling pin.
3. Fold the dough onto itself and repeat this rolling action 2-3 times for a soft and lump-free dough. Alternatively, use a dough mixer, observing the same principles as above.
4. Transfer your dough (atta) to a lightly oiled bowl, kneading it to fit the base of the bowl and ensuring all areas are coated in oil. This tip keeps the atta moist and easy to handle. Allow to set for a minimum of one hour in the fridge – the dough will be easier to handle and the resulting rotis will be softer.
Making the rotis:
5. Once you’re ready to make your rotis, clear and prepare your work station – a neatly laid-out space will be your safety blanket if you struggle with the roti-making technique! You need a clean, dry surface with plenty of room to roll the dough – ideally next to your cooker. Keep your flour in a wide bowl – this will make it easier when it comes to dusting. You’ll also need something to put the rotis on as they come off the heat – either an insulated container, or a plate lined with kitchen roll.
6. Pre-heat your pan over a low heat whilst you roll out the rotis. If you are slower at making them, do this later. It’s very important that the pan is hot before you begin.
7. Divide your dough into seven equal-sized pieces and set aside. With this quantity of dough, each piece usually weighs 70-80g. Take the first piece and roll between the palms of your hands to form a ball shape.
8. Flour coating 1: lightly coat the dough ball with flour so that it is not sticky.
9. Gently flatten the dough ball, rotating against the palm of your hands as you do so. The rotation is really important, as it helps to create an even consistency when rolling.
10. Use your rolling pin to roll the dough ball out into a small circle of about 2.5 inches diameter. Roll on one side, then flip it over and roll on the other. We can’t roll it out too thinly at this stage, otherwise the dough will start sticking to the work surface and rolling pin.
11. Flour coating 2: lightly smother both sides of your roti in flour, coating all areas, ready to roll it out as thinly and evenly as possible.
12. Now for rolling it out. Apply equal pressure to each rolling stroke, and use a fluid rolling motion, working from the wrists. If you apply too much pressure, the dough will stick to the surface and you’ll need more flour which can create a dry, burnt effect. If the roti is uneven (i.e. too thick in places and too thin in others), it’s harder to cook through and puff up. Flip using the corner of your dough and roll out again to create a large circle of around 6 inches diameter. Make sure the edges of your roti are not thick. Don’t be afraid to go diagonally to make sure your dough is even. Nanima says, “as you roll, you can ‘feel’ if your roti is even, and this comes with practice. Thin and even rotis will puff up”.
13. Place the flat roti on your hand and confidently clap it between your palms, before placing it in the centre of your hot tawa or frying pan.
14. Allow one side of the roti to heat for a few moments and then flip. Allow this other side to cook until you notice the top surface begin to show small heat bubbles and change to a light brown colour – the roti will look dry.
15. Once the browning looks evenly spread, flip the roti again using tongs (Nanima uses her hands but hers are heatproof from years of roti cooking!). If you’re not sure when to flip, lift the roti up using your tongs and have a little peek at the underside – it should be light brown and may have a few brown spots.
16. When the roti starts to brown further and puff up in places, use a small tea towel to gently push the parts which have puffed up, rotating the roti around the pan as you do so. You are trying to coax the air inside all parts of the roti. Be careful – too much pressure could create a hole in the roti causing heat to escape.
17. Alternatively, at the first sign of seeing puffs of air in the roti, use tongs to place it on a naked flame – this will almost always make it puff up. Make sure air gets right into the edges of the roti so it cooks all the way through.
18. Place the roti onto a plate and smother a small knob of butter evenly over it.
19. Repeat steps 8-18 for the remaining rotis. There’s no need to butter the next roti, as you’re stacking it on the previously buttered roti. They only need to be buttered on one side, so butter every alternate roti if you’re stacking them in this way! Serve hot with your choice of main dishes .
Prepare ahead: You can prepare the dough a few hours ahead of making rotis, or the night before for convenience. Experienced cooks like Nanima can cook rotis at speed, while the rest of the food is being heated. If you are new to making rotis, I strongly suggest that you make them ahead of your guests