Much before Britannia bread and sandwiches made their appearance in Old Delhi, two communities, the Naan Bais and the Bhatiyaras, used to supply locals a range of traditional breads.
Naan Bais ran shops that took bulk orders for a variety of breads during festivals, family events and ceremonies. Bhatiyaras (the term originates from the bhattis or kilns that they used) supplied breads to households where all members of the family were engaged in small enterprises that operated out of the home, leaving the residents with no time to cook.
"Bhatiyaras don't exist anymore. The numerous roti shops that we see now in the bylanes here are run by the Naan Bai community, or by people who are not from the community but have entered the business considering the ever-increasing demand for food here," says Old Delhi resident and food connoisseur, Abdul Sattar.
The disappearance of the Bhatiyaras has meant that Naan Bais now also sell breads in small quantities apart from catering to bulk orders.
Almost all the bread varieties available at popular bakeries like Imdaad Roti Shop, Rehmatullah Roti Shop and Haseen Roti Walaa trace their origin to the Mughal period. Before that, apparently, pooris and parathas were the staple. "The culture of purchasing breads from outside is Central Asian and came to India with the Mughals," says Salma Husain, author of The Emperor's Table: The Art of Mughal Cuisine.
Unleavened breads have a unique place in Mughal cuisine and selecting the right roti as an accompaniment to a dish is as important as infusing the dish itself with that perfect flavour. So the next time you visit Old Delhi, do check out the many delicious flatbreads on the local baker's menu and take your pick.
Not to be confused with Lucknow's sheermal or Kashmir's bakarkhani, this sweet and soft bread is the second most popular bread after the khamiri roti. The sheermal gets its name from the milk - sheer is Persian for milk - that's added along with ghee and sugar to the dough. The bread that's served with generous lashings of ghee is paired with spicy dishes like stew, nahari and qorma and with desserts like phirni and rabri.
Doodh Cheeni Ki Roti
One of the many varieties of breads that appear on the menu but is rarely displayed on counters, the doodh cheeni ki roti has to be pre-ordered. In addition to ghee, sugar, and milk, it contains paanch maghaz (combination of five seeds/nuts), elaichi (cardamom), saunf (fennel seeds) and kalaunji (nigella seeds). Dhaniya (coriander) and til (sesame seeds) are added as toppings.
Though the parat-daar patatha can be eaten with various Mughlai curries, it is absolutely delicious with mutton qeema. The parat-daar paratha (parat means layers) or lachha paratha is made of milk, sugar and flour. Semolina (suji) and ghee are added, not while kneading the dough, but to the dough balls. It is cooked on low heat and is handled with care as it has many layers. This roti is also available at other north Indian eateries.
The all season bread is "the Mughal's closest answer to leavened bread," chef Tarla Dalal noted on her site. This thick and spongy roti is part of the staple diet of families in every Muslim neighbourhood of the city. There are bakers who specialise in the khamiri roti (khamir means yeast). It can be paired with nearly any dish, gravy or dry, vegetarian or non-vegetarian and is in demand both during domestic meals and at wedding banquets.
Much richer and bigger than the kulcha with matar (peas) that is a popular street food across much of north India, this kulcha is the thickest of all the breads sold in Old Delhi. Made of flour, yeast, milk, sugar and eggs, it leaves a sweet aftertaste. It comes closest to the naan in its chewiness and can easily be considered its distant cousin. Earlier, kulchas were made in tawas or clay tandoors set aside especially for them. The story goes that by the time Shah Jehan came to power, chefs in the royal kitchens had started replacing naans with kulchas stuffed with vegetables and meat.
The Roti Wallahs
Imdaad roti shop, Dujana House, Matia Mahal market, near Jama Masjid
Rehmatullah roti shop, Matia Mahal market, near Jama Masjid
Haseen roti walaa, kucha pandit, near Chawri Bazaar metro station
Nikki roti waala, Bara Hindu Rao