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Give us this day our daily bread, says Kunal Vijayakar

Naan, kulcha, bakarkhani, parotta... would life even be worth living without the varied leavened and unleavened delights of bread?

mumbai Updated: Jun 08, 2019 10:54 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
India,Bread,Food
Nothing goes better with Butter Chicken than a crisp Butter Naan, and that’s just the tip of the Indian bread basket. (iStock)

I love bread. But the wise will tell you that bread is evil. “Cut out the bread,” they say. It’s not just gluten, omega-3 fatty acids and blood sugar levels, we are talking calamity and catastrophe, danger and dementia. Even ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches and depression.

There is a study online that claims more than 98% of convicted felons are bread-eaters; more than 90% of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread; and that bread is often an ‘entry’ food, leading the ‘addict’ to abuse ‘more dangerous’ foods such as butter, jam and cheese. Hokum, hogwash and horse feathers, I say. To hell with all the theorems and thesis, I love bread and I ain’t giving it up.

Can you repel the crunch of a warm baguette tartine with beurre and confiture, the resistance of sour dough with sharp cheddar and bacon, the heavenly butteriness of a brioche with soft-cooked eggs and salmon, the dense nuttiness of rye with gorgonzola and honey, or the soft honeycomb of a ciabatta with cheese, olive oil and ham?

I love all this stuff, but what I cannot tear myself away from are Indian breads — the roti, phulka, puri, chapati and more.

There are several theories about India’s history with baking, and our traditional wheat-based chapatis, parathas and puris can be traced back to Vedic times. But it’s the use of maida and the oven that fascinates me most. The cooking of bread in a tandoor goes back 5,000 years and can be found in most places that used some sort of clay oven, whether in Central Europe and Asia or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And when you think of a pure, white, flat bread emerging out of hot fiery tandoor, it’s the Naan that first comes to mind.

Naan is flour, yeast, sugar, salt, ghee, water and yoghurt, mixed and left to rise and then cooked in a tandoor. Some say the naan was a happy mistake. Either way, when yeast, which arrived from Egypt, was added to the mix, it resulted in an astonishingly fluffy and light bread. It’s the Middle East and India that essentially took that basic template and literally leavened bread-making into an art form.

Civilisations in Kashmir, Punjab, Lucknow, Delhi and the lands along the Grand Trunk Road all baked their own interpretations, to complement their dishes and ameliorate their cuisines to perfection. And what a variety of the same, but with influential disparities.

Just take the Butter Naan (obviously the butter was added in modern times). No Chicken Makhanwala on earth should be eaten without a well-made Butter Naan. Breaking the lightest, purest and softest long bread, with hot butter dripping onto your fingers, scooping up morsels of tandoori chicken cooked in tomato sauce, cream and more butter, encountering little black flakes of cinder and kasuri methi and the aroma of subtle spices… it’s intoxicating.

Or the Amritsari Laal Naan, a long-neglected recipe. Multiple layers of dough, baked and then fortified with red spicy rogan, and sesame seeds. It comes out hot, red and crisp.

Speaking of Amritsar, the Amritsari Kulcha is God’s gift to a plate of Chhole. Kulchas hail from the northwestern parts of Punjab and are made from the same dough as the Bhatura and can be cooked on a tawa or in a tandoor.

Some kulchas can even be stuffed, with onion, potato and coriander, quite like a parathas. And the only way they can be eaten is with a huge dollop of white, homemade butter.

Kashmir, with its proximity to central Asia, has perhaps the richest bread-making tradition in the subcontinent. They say Kashmir has nearly 14 kinds of daily bread. It all begins in the kandur or baker’s shop, where everyone goes to buy their bread and, while at it, sit around, surrounded by breads in all shapes and sizes and the warmth and aromas of the ovens, sip a cup of salty pink tea and chat.

Kashmir’s most famous bread is the Bakarkhani, a layered creation that is thin and crispy and coated with sesame seeds, and best had with tea. This is unlike the East Bengal Bakarkhani, which is thicker and goes really well with Seekh Kababs and Mughlai Mutton.

Kashmir also has the Tsochwor, a golden, puffy hard bread with sesame seeds on top, that with butter makes a great tea-time snack. There’s the Tsot or Girda, a small, round bread golden on top, white below with finger-tip indentations, to be eaten with just ghee. And the famous Lavasa, a puffy soft flat bread that, fresh out of the oven on a cold winter day, is heaven with butter and jam.

From Kashmir let’s move to the audacity of Lucknow. Bread infused with rich milk and precious saffron cooked in a tandoor, Sheermal is the slightly sweet, soft, most decadent bread of Lucknow, that indulges the sandalwood and spice in a Galavati Kabab or teases the floating marrow in a spicy Nihari.

Old Delhi and the bylanes of Jama Masjid cannot be described without an ode to the Khamiri Roti. The yeast and sugar in the Khamiri give it its distinct taste and cloudlike softness, a tenderness that balances out the fire of a Qorma at lunch or a Mutton Kheema for breakfast.

And finally the Taftan. Originally Persian, but lovingly embraced by Pakistanis and Indians alike, it is now a staple in the Muslim cuisine of Uttar Pradesh. The Taftan is made with maida, milk, yoghurt and eggs. It is then flavoured with saffron and cardamom, and eventually garnished with poppy seeds after being turned golden in a tandoor. With a slightly spicy Daal Gosht or a Pakistani-style Shabdeg (tender mutton cooked in spices with turnip), the Taftan for me is the king of north Indian breads.

But there’s so more to Indian breads than that. Breads like the Thepla from Gujarat, the Bhakri from Maharashtra, Luchi from Bengal, Tamil Nadu’s Dosai, Benne Dose from Karnataka, Kerala’s famous Parottas, the Bakshalu from Telangana, Andhra’s Minapattu and Pesarattu, and the Tan, Putharo, Paani Pitha, Khura, and Phale to name a few breads from our North-East, are just waiting to be savoured. And savour we shall, as we stride head on this adventure called food.

First Published: Jun 07, 2019 21:13 IST