When I make a roti, it assumes the shape of Australia. Sometimes it looks like Wyoming, that is, it is a square that is stretching at the edges, hoping it could pass off as a rectangle. Once in a while, my roti limns into an India when that was not my intention at all. But that, I believe, is a moment of dramatic irony in my humble kitchen for the word roti was once cooked up in the Indian subcontinent, after all. In both Hindi and Urdu, roti means “bread” and the word is believed to have originated from Sanskrit. Rotika means a “kind of bread.”
A roti is an unleavened Indian bread made from stone-ground whole meal flour—known traditionally as atta flour—that is consumed in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Naturally, the taste of the roti traveled across the oceans when Indians traveled to different parts of the world as indentured laborers to manage sugarcane plantations or to build railways. Hence the bread became popular also in parts of South Africa, the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Fiji.
At Queens, in Bangalore, I found out that a well-made roti could squelch all conversation. Located on Church Street, Queens looks like a wayfarer’s inn for paupers. Above this home style Punjabi eatery, its grimy green canopy is caked with decades of dust, cobwebs, wires and neglect. Its truck-stop appearance, with a sea of hundreds of motorbikes parked in front of it in tandem, does nothing to beckon a fine family looking for food worthy of royalty. But step inside this little cave with its clay veneer walls depicting art evocative of the Indus Valley civilization and you will become a slave to the soothing aroma of a hot griddle and the earthy simplicity of its rustic decor. The low-fat tadka dal, a simple mung lentil gravy seasoned with onions, green chillies, garam masala and cumin seeds will remind you of the dal at a Punjabi friend’s home. Sweet lassi arrives in nicked copper tumblers and vegetable dishes in small two-eared copper-bottomed woks. Here, while you’re being served dal and vegetable, hotrotis arrive at the table. Waiters bustle about the place with hot bread and all you must do is pick up the satin fluff that is dropped on your plate and tear the thing like you would a piece of Kleenex.
Our family could never have enough of those thin breads that summer in Bangalore. At a restaurant called Roomali With a View, we lusted after wafer-thin roomali (roomali in Hindi means handkerchief) rotis. We feasted on these breads, folded into four, in mint, spinach and garlic flavors. Young men tossed this cloth bread up in the air and cooked them swiftly on the curved undersides of upside-down woks.
In contrast to those, the rotis in my father’s home in Chennai were made by a cook whose end product resembled denim. I don’t believe she actually cooked the bread. They remained leathery sheets of dough that she then stuffed into a casserole inside which they sweated. On this last trip, Vinayagam, my father’s man-friday, told me about this young man called Shiva from Nepal whose forte was making rotis. I discovered that Shiva hardly talked. Shiva’s other great skill was that he rendered my late father’s valet speechless.
First, Shiva kneaded the dough very tight with salt and water. Then he set it aside. A half hour later, he kneaded it over and over again on the counter until it was soft as silk and loose as a ripened mango. He rolled the dough rapidly between his fingers, and then he began pressing out the balls of dough with a wooden rolling pin, dusting the ball, doing a little jig with the fingers of his left hand as he pushed out thin flat discs shaped by his imaginary compass. He slapped them on the tava. Then he tossed them on the gas burner until they puffed like pillows. Sometimes they burst or they sparked and caught fire at which time a sharp acrid smell of carbon punctured the air. But mostly they rose, like a balloon, under the open flame. Shiva made two a minute until he’d stacked up enough to feed us for a few days.
When Shiva left, our little apartment reeked of the earth, smoke and charcoal, a scent that reminded me of the essence of the roti: at its perfectly puffed peak, the roti was iconic of hospitality, health and good living.
I found out recently that good living is being simplified further by a roti machine called Rotimatic that spins out rotis by the minute. The man of the house throws in the atta, the salt, the oil and water into the Rotimatic. Almost simultaneously, he’s laying the table, setting out the salad and the gravy dishes, figuring out which placemat will match his mood, and pouring the wine. Rotimatic goes about kneading and pressing and rolling out a roti a minute. While the man is operating the machine—which is also the point by the way—the wife is busy painting. In the meanwhile she cannot help looking like a painting herself and has therefore given the viewer the impression that she will never drop her brush to pick up a rolling pin.
While I chewed Shiva’s roti the other day, I watched a video of the Rotimatic and located its main flaw in design. The dress fit the woman’s form so well that it was obvious that the Rotimatic was romantic only in concept. I actually wished to see the woman two months after her man began using the Rotimatic. Forget the roti. She would be all puffed up, wouldn’t she?