I first learned to eat with my hands from my 10th-grade history teacher. He had traveled in India during college and he had a few of us over one evening for some Indian food, which he taught us to eat properly. We got huge pieces of flatbread, which we were told to pile up with curries. I later learned that this is the South Indian way of doing things, food wrapped up in giant dosas – a flatbread that is more like a crepe, compared to what you’ll find as you head north, where batters become doughs and are fried with oil, (like parathas), cooked on a dry skillet (chapatis), or oven-baked (naan). All of these are part of the range of South Asian breads called roti.
Then he gave us rules for eating with our hands. First, of course, get rid of those pesky forks. Second, and most important, hygenically speaking: only use your right hand to touch food. (You’ll find this to be the case in any country without toilet paper, because your left hand takes care of that. This also means that you don’t pass food with your left hand, unless your right one is covered in vindaloo, don’t offer your left hand to shake, and don’t give money with your left hand unless you really want to insult someone.) Third, there is some etiquette involved in grabbing chunks of food with your bare mitts: it’s bad form for those spicy lentils to drip below your second knuckle, and bread really is used as a utensil, so it forms something of a barrier between you and that korma. Fourth, it’s okay to lick your fingers. Dig in.
It took me a stupidly long time to realize that not only could I cook a decent curry without having to call for takeout, but that making the bread to eat it with was also not rocket science. About a year ago, I started making my own flour tortillas (there is one Mexican restaurant in Sofia, and it’s awful, so I did what I had to do), and, after reading up on chapati recipes, I realized that Indian flatbread and Mexican flatbread were not really that different. To top it off, chapatis are just about the easiest thing ever to make. I don’t even measure anymore. The key is to cook them over really high heat: the lower the heat, the longer they have to cook, and the longer they cook, the crispier they get, and the crispier they get, the harder they are to wrap around your cumin potatoes. I use some oil in mine, although I have been reminded by Sid (thank you, Sid!) that traditionally, they are made without. The directions here are rather lax, because this is not a complicated process: flour, grease, and water, fried. So don’t stress about it. If you like, you can add some black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, finely choped onion, or finely chopped garlic (my favorite). Just stir them in with the flours, before you add the water.
makes about 12
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon oil, plus more for the pan
In a medium bowl sift together flours and salt. Add oil and mix well. Add just enough water to make the dough come together – this is not going to be flaky biscuit dough, but it won’t be a batter either, because you’ll have to roll it out. Once water has been incorporated, knead the dough a bit into a ball and let sit for a few minutes while the pan heats.
Heat a drizzle of oil in a frying pan over high heat. Take a knob of dough – say, 1/8 cup – and work it into a ball. On a well-floured surface, roll it out into a circle that’s as thin as you can make it, turning and flipping it often to keep it from sticking to the work surface. When you hold it up and can see light coming through it, it’s thin enough. Lay it in the hot pan and cook just long enough to brown nicely, then flip and cook the other side, just as quickly. Serve with your favorite curry, or just eat them as they come out of the pan – a highly probable scenario if you’ve put garlic in there. Yum.