Food - Bread

The general Indian term for bread in India is roti. It covers a huge range of different types of breads varying in size and shape, cooking methods and the type of flour that is used. Many different breads in South Asia have the word roti incorporated into them.

A staple food

Company drawing of two women grinding grain to make flour
Image: Two women grinding grain to make flour.

All South Asian food is served with rice or bread, or both. In the north of the subcontinent, whole wheat breads like chapatis and paratas are eaten with every meal. In the south, rice is the staple.

Bread is made using wheat, rice, dal (split pea) or corn flour. Most present day rotis are made with wheat and fall into three categories: breads roasted on flat griddles, breads that are deep or pan-fried, and breads which are leavened and baked in ovens. Some are stuffed or flavoured with seeds, meat, fruit or spices. A wide variety of breads are sold on the street as snacks, to be eaten with vegetables, boiled eggs, minced meat or chicken.

Roasted breads

Roasted forms of roti are usually unleavened flat breads that are roasted on a flat or slightly curved griddle called a thava. 'Unleavened' means that the dough does not have an ingredient in it that causes it to rise, like yeast or soda. Such bread is usually made of a simple dough of just flour and water.

Painting depicting a grain shop
Image: Painting of a thatched grain shop at a bazaar.

Perhaps the best-known and universally eaten breads of this kind are chapatis. Referred to as roti in India, they are made from finely milled wheat flour, called chapati flour, or atta, and water. The dough is rolled into thin rounds which vary in size from region to region and then cooked without fat or oil. They are served throughout India and Pakistan as a staple for scooping up food or dipping into soups and sauces. Sometimes they are puffed out to produce a phulka, by briefly dipping them into hot coals.

Each region in South Asia has its own specialities. In Gujarat a very thin chapati-like roti is produced called a rotlee. Another thin type is called rumali, which means scarf. It is pressed between the fingers and tossed to make it stretch and is then folded over many times to a manageable size. Gujarati travellers traditionally make rotis called khakras which are very thin and brittle and keep well. These are kneaded with milk and water. A wide variety of flat breads such as phefras, bhatia and do-patris are made in Rajasthan.

Fried breads

Some bread doughs are fried in fat. These are usually unleavened doughs made with wheat flour. They are rolled out before shallow or deep frying. The commonest types are paratas which are often made into a square or triangular shape. The dough is frequently mixed with other ingredients like vegetables, potatoes, cauliflower, spinach or methi (fenugreek). Some breads are stuffed with fillings like vegetables or chopped eggs.

Deep fried rotis are typically rounded, crisp and puffy. They include puris which can be dipped in strongly-flavoured sauces made with chillies. There are several variations. Some are stuffed with dhal mixtures, or mixed with sugar or poppy seeds to give flavour.

Oven baked breads

Muslims first introduced bread ovens to South Asia, about 1000 AD. These are usually used for wheat-based doughs that contain leavening agents such as yeast or soda.

Ovens are either closed and heated modern ovens, or they are Indian-style clay tandoors. Tandoors ovens are open, with a bed of live, glowing coals at the bottom. In the Punjab, communal open air tandoor ovens are used to bake all the villagers' bread. Women bring their dough to be rolled into rotis, which is then baked by the tandooriya.

Nan is thick, elastic bread common throughout India and Pakistan. It originates from a Persian word for bread. It is made of refined wheat flour. The dough is leavened before baking in a tandoor. Sometimes the breads are sprinkled with black nigella seeds, or brushed with saffron water to give them a red colour. Sometimes they are coated with a tomato and garlic paste or with a sweet mash of dates. They can also be kneaded with almonds or crumbs of paneer cheese before baking.

During the period of the British Empire, western-style loaf bread was introduced. It was very different because it contained more yeast, which made it rise far beyond any of the traditional types. In the 1920s it began to be produced commercially in India. This western-style of baking has led to the development of leavened breads that are unique to India. Ordinary loaf bread is called double-roti (double risen) in India. In some places, a bun-like bread of Portuguese origin is still produced, called pao.