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Have your loaf and eat it too!

Indians can make great rotis from virtually any kind of grain or pulse. But we are reluctant to brag about them. Why doesn’t the Indian bread tradition get the respect it deserves? asks Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2011 19:07 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

In the West, bread is a really big deal. When the French food revolution took off in the Seventies and Eighties, one of its greatest heroes was a baker called Lionel Poilane who introduced a loaf with a note of acid running through it. Poilane bread became so famous that even today, it is a global benchmark for quality.

So it is with other kinds of bread. Food critics will often judge a restaurant by the quality of its bread. Bakery chefs are in great demand and they fight battles over the starter cultures that are required to make good fermented loaves.

I can understand this. The West is a bread-based culture. No matter where you go, you will find a local bread. The French have their baguettes and their croissants (which may or may not be of Turkish origin); the Italians have focaccia; the Germans have a dark bread; and the English, well, the English have nasty sliced industrial white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth.

riceIn contrast, Asia is a rice-based culture. And so, most Asian cuisines will make much of the quality of their rice. For instance, the Japanese will complain about Thailand’s fragrant jasmine rice, arguing that the taste is too strong and will ask for their own

blander rice. Rice dishes – from nasi goreng to fried rice to the pellets they use for nigiri sushi – will be the subject of endless

discussions and debate.

Which brings us to India, a relatively unusual society in the sense that we are both rice and wheat eaters. The caricature has it that the North eats wheat but the sub-continent’s most famous rice dishes – biryani and kheer, for instance – actually have North Indian roots. And of course, the South is a rice-eating society.

But here’s my problem: while we are prepared to make much of our rice dishes ("the best biryani is in Lucknow etc.") we are

strangely reluctant to brag about our breads.

And God knows, India has a huge variety of breads. Forget about wheat. Indians can make great breads (rotis) from virtually any kind of grain or pulse from bajra to jowar to chick peas (besan) to many varieties of dal.

But we rarely make enough of our bread-making skills. I know people who will choose a restaurant on the basis of the quality of the biryani or the pulao but hardly anybody comes back from a restaurant raving about the quality of the naan or the rotis. Even when dishes revolve around bread, it hardly gets a mention. People may praise the pav-bhaji at a stall but it will be the bhaji they focus on; the pav will be taken for granted.

When we do talk about bread, we focus on the extras. I have heard people say "the keema naan is delicious at this restaurant" but rarely will they talk about a plain naan. Even when parathas are discussed, it is usually the stuffing that gets talked about, not the paratha itself.

Contrast this with the West. A man who makes a terrific chocolate croissant or puts great toppings on his focaccia will not be taken seriously unless the croissant itself (without the chocolate filling) or the basic focaccia are perfect.

Why should this be so? Why don’t we take our naan/ paratha/roti/puri/thepla tradition as seriously as the West takes its bread? Why is a man who makes a great biryani hailed as a genius while a guy who makes great naans or parathas languishes at the back of the kitchen?

Some of this, I suspect, has to do with our traditional inferiority complex about refined flour or maida. Though obviously there are as many views on this subject as there are food historians, the broad consensus seems to be that Indians specialised in whole-grain flours (atta, bajra etc.) till Muslim traders brought in maida from the Middle East. West Asia had a strong baking tradition (in India we tended to make our breads on tawas or fried them) which used refined flour and when this eventually became the preferred style of the royal court, chefs all over India began adopting it.

Even today, there is a bogus snobbery associated with maida which is seen as superior to plain old atta. When I lived in Calcutta, I was forever being told by uppity Bongs that they did not allow atta into their kitchens. Even their parathas and loochis (puris) were made from maida. So it is with cooks at most North Indian restaurants. Tell them that a tandoori roti (which is of Hindu Punjabi origin and has nothing to do with Samarkhand, Peshawar or Bukhara) should be made with atta and they will act as though you have insulted them. Unless you push them, they will always prefer maida.

In many ways this is bizarre because, the world over, the trend is to give up on maida and to return to whole-wheat. But in India, the prejudice endures.

The fancy-imported image of maida (and of the refined flour breads that came relatively late in our culinary history) also has a colonial link. When the Portuguese landed in Goa, they rejected the local breads and tried to make their own. Without the starter culture that they were used to back home, they started using a little alcohol (feni, even) to begin the process of fermentation in the dough that was crucial to their kind of bread.

That tradition endures today in the humble pav (or pao) which is in direct descent from the bread that the Portuguese introduced to Goa. (There are two theories about the name. One is that the dough was mixed by people walking on it – hence ‘pav’ for foot. More plausible is the version that each pao was made in a batch of four so an individual piece was a quarter of the total – or a ‘pao’).

By the time the British got to India, our native bread-making tradition was held in contempt. They did not understand how bread could be made on tawas, favoured the Muslim maida-baking approach and in any case, gave us their own tasteless white bread.

Though things have changed a little since those days, I am still surprised by how complete the imported maida domination of our local roti tradition is. Think about it. Most of us eat phulkas or some variation thereof at home. But how many restaurants in India bother with phulkas or chapattis of any kind? You’ll be encouraged to order naan or tandoorirotis. Chapattis will rarely be on the menu.

And even where restaurants do make an effort, how often do you see the traditional Indian breads made from such grains as bajra on the menu? Even though, in terms of health, such grains as bajra and jowar are much, much better for you than maida, they are usually banished from the menu.

Some dishes survive – especially in this day and age – because chefs and restaurants persist with them. With Indian breads, the opposite is true. The only reason the chapatti is so ubiquitous is because we cook it at home. Leave it to restaurants and it will die. So it is with the puri. Except for halwais, most chefs do not bother very much with it. Only the home cooks keep the tradition alive. When chefs do approach the paratha, they either overload it with fancy stuffings or (claiming inspiration from Parathewali Gali) deep fry it so that one paratha is enough to knock you out and two puts you in queue for a heart attack.

My other theory about why we don’t take our breads seriously enough (apart from our fascination with maida) is that Indians take rotis for granted. In the West, they eat bread on its own (or with a little butter or olive oil). In India, we treat a roti as no more than the wrapping for a sabzi or piece of meat or whatever. So naturally, we focus less on the wrapping and more on the stuff that it is wrapped around. So, if a meat curry is great, we’ll rave about that and ignore the roti we eat it with.

In doing so, we shortchange ourselves. No matter how great a mutton curry is, a bad roti will always destroy the experience. A delicately spiced sabzi needs a soft phulka for its full flavour to emerge. A plate of channa is worth nothing without a fluffy bhatura. A garlicky yellow dal improves 200 per cent when you dunk a nice, crisp tandoori roti into it. A simple plate of sookha aloo can be transformed into a superlative meal if the poori is any good. A bowl of dahi, coloured with a little achaar, becomes a gourmet meal if you eat it with a spicy thepla, full of the goodness of methi.

In short, unless you eat rice at every meal, there is no way you can really enjoy Indian food if you don’t get the bread right. You can eat a Western meal – say a steak or a piece of fish – without any bread and not really miss it. But can you imagine eating a sabzi by itself? You have to depend on the roti to transform most Indian dishes into great meals.

Which brings us back to where we started. Why don’t we have our own Poilane? If bakers are so prized in the West, why do we take our own roti chefs for granted? Why doesn’t the Indian bread tradition get the respect it deserves?

I don’t know. But unless things change, I think Indian cuisine will pay the price for our neglect.

- From HT Brunch, Januray 16

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First Published: Jan 14, 2011 16:39 IST