A hot meal from an expert Indian cook offers a potpourri of colour, texture, aroma and spikes of sweet, sour and hot tastes. The perfect rounding effect comes from the trio of sides: pickle, chutney and bread. Breads from the South Asian kitchen more often use direct heat, by way of griddle or tandoor to present crispy brown texture, compared to the oven baked large format loaves of the Western baker. And the variety! In the West, we often ignore the fact that the cultural diversity within India are as far ranging as that of all of Europe. Just think of the light years of difference between a French Croissant, a Russian Dark Rye and an Italian Focaccia – this same diversity is evident across the geography of Indian breads.
The technique that produces the most complex texture is laminating, where dough is rolled or stretched thin, layered with fat and rebuilt, so that layers of dough crisp up while cooking and burst into crumb and crisp flake as they are torn and eaten. In the Western kitchen, this would include the items made with puff pastry, Croissant or Danish Dough. Puff pastry has butter or margarine rolled and folded within layers of dough and contains no yeast. Of course, butter and margarine contain water so this turns to steam in the oven, thus raising and separating the layers of pastry. Croissant is similar but with yeast as an added leaven, and Danish has the bonus of sugar and water for its’ distinct texture.
Indian cooks pull and stretch dough similar to an Austrian strudel then add a little vegetable oil, fold it to build the layers and cook it immediately on a hot griddle. Start to finish, it takes a matter of minutes and the result is rich yet crispy, a light warm blast of soft dough and shattering crumb, made even lighter by the chef crushing the bread together to encourage the flakiness. Recently I spent time with a young cook at one of the many kitchens of Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur in order to observe the flatbread production. At his work station, he had a large granite-like counter to roll on, and both tandoor oven and flat top griddle for heat sources. Three batches of dough waited, in tennis ball sized portions. The first two, the naan and chapati, were simply rolled out into thin disks with a rolling pin and flour. The garlic naan was pressed against the side of the blazing tandoor oven and came to a blistering crisp in 5 minutes, expertly removed from the inferno with long steel rods as if handling radioactive fuel. It smelled of delicious toast and begged for butter. The chapatis, somewhat less dramatic, are rolled thinly and cooked on a dry griddle until golden brown mostly, with a few scorched parts for a more interesting flavor. The roti however, are made from choreography, rhythm and skill, flung around like a handkerchief and stretched to the point of puncture. The chef covers the dough ball in vegetable oil and flattens it into a large circle. The dough is gently picked up and swung up and around counter-clockwise then flung onto the table over a series of 4 or 5 of these “pulls” until it is a see-through sheet as thin as a butterfly wing. It is stretched and formed into a rectangle, splashed by drops of oil from finger tips, then folded unto itself, by a third, then again, then half and so forth until it is a rectangle the size of a small tablet with several layers. It is plonked directly onto the griddle and cooked 2 minutes per side until golden and flakey. The chef plucks it off the heat and bashes the sides together for the super crumble effect, cuts it into manageable portions and it is placed in front of the guest. Magic.
Plain, served with a lentil curry, the Malaysians call this Roti Canai or Rumali (handkerchief), while in Singapore it is filled with chicken or lamb curry and named Mutarbak. Used as a scoop for sopping up punchy curries or to wipe otherwise lost cooking juices from the plate like a sponge, it is the wheelhouse of the Indian meal, around which all the other element circle. And the next one will be ready in 5 minutes.