The aphorism “Bread is the staff of life” has a much fuller meaning in
India than in the West, where most of us eat denatured bread with few
life-giving qualities. In India natural, wholesome homemade breads are a
part of almost every meal. Varied in shape, texture, and taste, Indian
breads are easily and quickly prepared.
The Vedic way of serving bread adds a special touch to a meal: as soon as
your guest finishes one hot bread, you immediately serve him another.
You may wonder how you can offer the bread to Kåñëa and still serve it hot
to your guests. The trick is to cook the bread last. Just before the
offering, cook enough for Kåñëa’s plate. Then, while the offering is on
the altar, cook the rest and keep it hot. (For large gatherings, you may
find it more practical to cook all the bread before the offering and warm
it in the oven just before you serve it).
In Western dining, we often use bread to push other foods onto the fork.
But in Indian dining the bread itself is the fork. The Indian way is to
tear off a small piece of bread, wrap it around a bit of food too soft to
pick up with your fingers, and pop both your food and your “fork” into
At each Hare Kåñëa center, every day we have a simple Vedic lunch of rice,
dal, vegetables, and chapatis. Like most Vedic breads, chapatis are made
with a kind of stone-ground whole-wheat flour called chapati flour or
atta. This flour, available in Indian stores, is quite different from the
whole-wheat flour in supermarkets and health food stores. Chapati flour
consists of whole grains of wheat finely milled to a buff-colored powder.
Doughs made with atta turn out velvety smooth, knead readily, and respond
easily to shaping. If chapati flour is unavailable, whole-wheat pastry
flour is the next best. If coarse whole-wheat flour is all you can get,
sift it to reduce its coarse texture or mix it with unbleached or
all-purpose flour. Two parts sifted whole-wheat flour to one part
all-purpose flour generally gives good results.
In most of the bread recipes, the amount of water given is aproximate. It
will vary with the quality of the flour and the moistness of the air.
Start by adding a little less water than specified, and if that isn’t
enough, add more, a little at a time, until the dough has the desired
consistency. Then knead the dough.
The most important step in preparing any dough is the kneading. If the
dough has been evenly and thoroughly kneaded, the rolling and cooking are
easy. Here is how to do it. Lightly flour the dough and your hand, then
push the heel of your hand into the dough, away from you. Fold the dough
over, give it a slight turn, and push down again. Keep pushing, folding,
and turning until the motion becomes rhythmic. Knead the dough in this way
until it is smooth and elastic. If the dough still sticks to your hands or
the bowl after you’ve added all the ingredients, keep kneading and adding
flour a little at a time until the ball of dough comes away clean.
The breads in this chapter are either cooked on the tava (a heavy,
slightly concave cast-iron frying pan) or deep-fried in a karhai or wok.
Usually you set the tava on the flame before you cook the first bread. A
pre-heated tava or pan cooks the bread faster and prevents it from
becoming dry and brittle. The karhai or wok saves ghee, and its wide
concave sides give plenty of room for deep frying. If you don’t have a
tava, you can substitute a cast-iron frying pan; if you don’t have a
karhai or wok, any wide, heavy saucepan will do.
Rolling these breads calls for a little practice, but don’t be discouraged
if it seems difficult at first. After a few times, you’ll become expert.
Besides, even your mistakes will taste good.
At the end of this chapter you’ll find recipes for three types of savory
pancakes, each made with a different kind of flour.