India's cuisine is one of the most diverse on the planet, so speaking of "Indian food" as a single style of cooking is a terrible oversimplification. For example, while India's southern states rely on rice as a staple, northern regions such as the Punjab eat a wide variety of flatbreads. The simplest is called chapati or roti, a simple dough of whole wheat flour baked on a flat griddle. The dough can be made hours or days ahead, shortening the cooking process at mealtime.
Chapati and Flatbreads
Many of the world's cuisines, especially in the tropical and subtropical regions, are built around flatbreads, rather than large loaves of bread. That's partly because ovens and the fuel to heat them were historically costly and rare in many areas, and partly because flatbreads are quicker and more convenient to make. Some, such as naan and pita breads, are made with leavened dough. Others, including tortillas and chapati, are unleavened and consist simply of flour, water and salt. They're sometimes baked in conventional ovens or chimney-like tandoor ovens, but more often they're simply cooked on a flat griddle.
Chapati dough is made from a basic whole wheat flour. It resembles the stone-ground flour available in the United States more so than American whole-wheat flour, with its relatively large flakes of bran. The flour and a pinch of salt are moistened with water, then kneaded to a smooth, moderately stiff dough. Patting or rolling the chapati to thin rounds is difficult unless the dough rests for at least an hour, to relax its elastic strands of gluten.
Leave the dough out at room temperature if you'll be using it within a few hours, or cover it and refrigerate for a day or two. For longer-term storage, divide the dough into portions and wrap them individually. Alternatively, pat or roll the chapatis into shape, then freeze them between layers of parchment or wax paper. You'll be able to easily remove as many as you need for quick meals. Already-baked chapatis can also be frozen, then reheated in the oven under damp paper towels.
If you've refrigerated the dough, it will be stiff and difficult to work with until it comes back up to room temperature. Check the yield of your recipe, and divide the dough into the appropriate number of individual portions. Shape each portion into a small flattened ball, and cover the portions with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. When they reach room temperature and become soft and flexible, they're ready to use.
On the Griddle
Home cooks in India usually make chapati on a tava, a small griddle that resembles a flat cast iron skillet with a handle but no sides. A cast iron or cast aluminum skillet makes a suitable substitute. Roll or pat each ball of dough into a flat round, 5 to 7 inches in diameter or as directed in your recipe. Heat your skillet or tava to a medium-high heat, and cook the first chapati until the first side is covered with brown spots. Turn it and cook the second side, pressing the chapati gently with your spatula to make it balloon and puff up. Repeat for the remaining chapati, brushing them lightly with melted butter as they come from the skillet.
- Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas; Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid
- Ann Arbor.com: Northern India Cooking Class; Lesson 6 -- Chapatis
- Photo Credit Warrick Page/Getty Images News/Getty Images