In 1989, just before I took over as executive chef of The Gateway Hotel on Residency Road, Bangalore, my boss (well, let‘s rephrase that, I had so many bosses, not just the one, starting with the food and beverage manager, the general manager, the area general manager, the corporate chef west and last, but by no means least, the corporate chef north!) who was the vice-president of sales & marketing, who also happened to be a director of The Gateway Hotels, asked me to check out the possibility of having an Indian bread stall at the hotel on Sundays. What a great idea!! So off I went on a mission to find different kinds of breads in the nearby countryside.
My first stop was at the Shanbagh Restaurant in Bangalore which had a reputation for making the best pooris. They were crisp, puffed-up and so small that you could just keep on popping them into your mouth. Little explosions of perfection. . .
My next stop was a restaurant in the old city of Hyderabad near the Charminar, and this place made the best kulchas and bakarkhani served with nihari. After eating these flat and layered breads dipped in a meat stew that’s been slowly cooked overnight, it really feels as though one’s mission on this planet is complete as this is pure nirvana!
Another day I visited a restaurant in Ernakulam where the Moplahs make a bread called Kerala parantha stuffed with the most delicious vegetables and freshly cooked minced lamb or chicken.
It was at my final port of call, a place in Delhi called Paranthe wali Gali, that I learned the real meaning of making bread.
I had only heard of this place but never visited it although my family and I had lived in Delhi in the early 70s and I had even worked in hotels in New Delhi in the 80s. So here I was in Chandini Chowk in Delhi looking for the famous Paranthe wali Gali.
This place had about eight shops and each shop sold paranthas with a variety of fillings. One parantha shop even had a staggering 26 fillings!!! During my short stay in Delhi I must have dined in one of those shops at least six times! Why? Because it was here that you could feast on a mirchi parantha that tasted unlike any other; the bread was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, it was never overcooked, it was never burnt – and it always tasted the same, every single time I ate there.
The paranthas came served with an assortment of accompaniments such as peas and potatoes, or potatoes and green peas with home-made paneer, a tamarind chutney, and maybe even a dal, and this was the best of the lot!!
So how did they manage to keep their paranthas so consistent?
Being a family-run tradition, and also for fear of losing their secret recipe to ‘spies’, this family had evolved a simple technique, namely only one person did each stage of the bread-making. So, the dough was kneaded by one person. Indeed, before the kneading process started, another person mixed the dough using the same quantities of wholemeal (stoneground) flour with added salt, oil and water. After the initial mixing, which was nothing more than just a few ‘gathering’ motions of the dough, the dough was then passed on to the next man in line whose job was to knead the dough until it was ready!! The dough was never over kneaded, nor, by G-d, under kneaded; it was kneaded until perfect, that is, when it comes off the palm easily.
At this stage the nearly-finished dough now reaches its final destination where it is kept covered with a moist cloth; it is never refrigerated and definitely never frozen!!
The dough is then rolled into equal-sized balls and filled with different kinds of fillings to make a mirchi (chilli) parantha or a mooli (grated and spiced white radish) parantha, a gobhi (cauliflower and spices) parantha, the ever-so popular aloo (mashed potato) parantha, and the list goes on and on.
The balls are then flattened and filled with all the different fillings and then they are rolled out into even-sized parantha. As I watched the chef roll the balls with such speed and ease, I also noticed that at no stage did he dust the surface with flour. This is important as dusting your surface with flour means that when you cook the parantha the raw flour simply burns when placed on the hot kadhai (skillet), as does the ghee which is used for frying the paranthas.
The consistency of the dough, which is the key to successful parantha making, is more important than the filling itself because the dough is the body that encases the filling. If the dough is too soft it tears when it’s being rolled, which really isn’t acceptable even if you are only paying a few cents for each parantha! Just as if the dough is too hard you won’t be able to roll it easily.
The paranthas were made more in pride in a long-lasting family tradition than in wanting to make money. As we all know anyway, if the product is good enough it will sell and then the money will follow, just as we know the opposite truth that if the product isn’t good . . . well, if this is the case you’re a goner, you’re history, and speaking of history but on a happier note, bear in mind that Paranthe wali Gali has been in Delhi since 1870!!
Now, even though I watched the bakers and tasted many of their wares I’m not saying that I have learnt the secret of making a soft dough that comes out the same day-in and day-out.
Nor that I have any insider information from the Prasad family who run the shops (I do hope they are still going strong); but in the years that have passed since that visit, I have come to the conclusion that bread-making is not just an art but a tradition, which means you need to pass on the ‘tradition’ of one batch of dough to the next by adding a ‘starter’ to each new batch of dough you make (this is also called a ‘culture’). A starter is nothing more than a small quantity of the dough kept aside from the previous batch that is added to the next batch of dough before being kneaded. It’s as simple as that!
It was interesting to see that at the Shanbagh Restaurant in Bangalore chefs used yet another technique to make the dough soft; they simply added milk instead of water to the flour and boy did it work!!
At nilgiri’s we use the whey that’s left over from our home-made paneer to make the dough soft (see my blog: “I’ve been cooking Indian food all my life; I don’t need to do a cooking class. . .”). Adding the whey works with plain flour (and needs no baking powder) which is used in making naan, you know what I mean, the pear-shaped bread from Tandoor that’s so popular all over the world!!
At home, when I don’t have any whey, I use buttermilk along with the water to make the dough soft – a technique that works as the dough is ready as soon as the kneading is over; with buttermilk it also doesn’t need any further time to breathe, or rest, as is the case when only water is used.
There is nothing more pleasing to an Indian ear (be it man, woman or child) than hearing one’s mother say, “Betae roti tayaar hai!!!” And on that happy note of warm-smelling roti straight off the griddle pan, please try the following roti recipe , Paneer ki roti, a flat bread filled with a spiced paneer.
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!!