what are naan, roti and dosa?

There are four basic types of bread in Indian cuisine – chapati, puri, paratha and naan – with many, many variants. For example, garlic naan and peshwari naan are plain naan with some added ingredients. Stuffing bread, particularly naan and parathas, is also common.

In this post, I am going to describe these different breads. I am also going to discuss a couple of other similar dishes – dosa, idli and dhokla. Dosa is like a crêpe, idli are rice cakes and dhokla is like cornbread, but made with lentils. Dosa, idli and dhokla have the advantage of being gluten-free, whilst the rest of these breads contain flour. Having said that, there are recipes in this cookbook for breads made from lentil flour (besan), cornmeal and coconut flour that are gluten-free.

The name roti tends to cover all unleavened breads, including chapati and paratha. It is used commonly in north, central and east India, where the term “chapati” is used more in west and south India. In northern Indian restaurants, asking for a roti may get you a chapati made from a different flour, which may be griddle cooked, fried, baked (uncommon, but not unusual), or even cooked in the tandoor. You might even get a paratha.

Traditionally, a chapati is made from wholemeal flour (atta) and is an unleavened bread. In south India the chapati is sometimes fried in a bit of oil; elsewhere it is dry cooked on a griddle. They are typically rolled to be quite thin – I have seen street vendors make them almost transparently thin.

Chapatis can be eaten with anything and are the ideal accompaniment to any Indian meal. They are simple to prepare and easy to cook. Make the dough, roll out the chapatis then cook them on a griddle for a few minutes on each side. When catering for a party, always do more than you think you need, because they seem to disappear quickly. They also taste good the next day, perhaps with some of the other leftovers.

Tear off a piece of your chapati and use it to scoop up a piece of meat or vegetable – from your own plate, not a communal dish – and pop it into your mouth. It is also acceptable to mop up the sauces from your plate at the end of the meal with a piece of chapati.

You could add spice, herbs or other ingredients to the dough mixture. We tend not to, because the simple taste of the chapati just works with anything we cook. A variant of the chapati is the phulka, which is a chapati finished on an open flame, giving a puffed bread. Works well on a barbecue.

For the gluten-free, there are a few variations on the standard chapati. The most common is the Punjabi makki di roti, made from maize flour.

Paratha is a layered chapati that is lightly fried in ghee, or oil. They should be flaky and as you tear them, the layers should readily separate. The layers can be stuffed with vegetables such as potato or cauliflower, or paneer.

Parathas are more time-consuming to prepare than chapatis. Starting with the same basic dough, you roll them out, brush them with ghee or oil, make them back into balls, then repeat the process. You repeat this process at least two or three times, like puff pastry, because you want that flaky layering. There are a couple of techniques for making the layers and are discussed in the paratha recipe in this book.

two paratha on a plate

Parathas are a good accompaniment to soupy dishes like sambar.

The Tamil migrants who settled in Malaysia and other south-east Asian countries have turned parathas into an absolute delight. But, just to be confusing, they call them roti. Choosing a roti in a Tamil restaurant is a good idea, believe me.

Puri (also known as poori) are very similar to chapati, with the main difference being that puri is deep fried.

We don’t eat them at home a lot, because the health-conscious members of my family object to deep-fried bread and probably rightly so. But, a puri, served with dal, is one of life’s great pleasures.

A puri is made by using the same dough like a chapati, but instead of rolling it out thinly, you make a smaller diameter, but a much thicker portion. This is then deep-fried, where it will expand dramatically into a ball, roughly the size of a mango. Remove from the oil, drain and serve quickly before it deflates. Despite the description of “deep-fried bread”, it is actually lighter than you think.

a stack of puri with a bowl of chole and an onion salad
puri and chole

If you think that sounds good, then you should try the variant, bhatura. Bhatura is just a big puri – about football size. Because it is bigger, it does tend to be lighter. It is usually served with chole or dal tadka, both hot lentil dishes. If you are in South India and have the chance to eat dal bhatura, then take the opportunity. There is a recipe for dal bhatura in this book.

Naan is a leavened bread made with white flour. According to my research, the bread is usually leavened with yeast and sometimes baking powder or a combination of both. Naan is thicker than the unleavened breads. Roti is traditionally made on a tawa or griddle, whereas naan is often, but not always, made in a tandoor. Some naan recipes use a conventional oven to bake the naan, seeing that not many people have a tandoor in their homes. Further, there is a variant called tawa naan, which is naan cooked on a griddle.

a stack of naan on a wooden platter

I found few references to yeast or baking powder in my Grandmothers notes. Yet, there were several references to leavened bread. She, or her cooks, to be precise, apparently used mineral or fruit salts to leaven the bread. This time, her assiduous note-taking led me astray. Searching for these salts turned up any number of unusual items – a footbath, an emetic and a laxative. I couldn’t see myself cooking with any of these.

It was a chance remark by my father that led me to the solution. We were in a supermarket and he happened to mention that his mother always had “a lot of that”, pointing to the shelves. I looked and responded, “well, with six children, she had to keep you regular.” He replied, “No, she cooked with it.” The item he was pointing at was “Eno”. Some research and I discovered just how prevalent this substance was throughout India. It is used instead of baking powder.

It also made me understand the difference between naan and kulcha.

Whilst naan uses yeast as a leavening agent, kulcha makes use of baking powder or mineral salts for its preparation. Naans are usually oblong in shape while kulchas are round – although it is more look and feel and not a rule. Naan are predominantly made in an oven but kulchas are made mostly on stovetop or the oven.

A kulcha is simply naan made without yeast. Moreover, they taste just as good, without the doughy texture that many naan have.

You must go to a pharmacist to buy fruit salts. The supermarket versions are flavoured – you want the basic unflavoured item, which I have only found in pharmacists.

Dhokla is a vegetarian dish that originates from the Indian state of Gujarat. It is made with a batter prepared from chickpeas. It is leavened and is reminiscent of cornbread, or polenta. Dhokla are eaten for breakfast, as a main course, as a side dish, or as a snack.

Idli are steamed rice cakes and have many health benefits. This quintessential south Indian food has been eaten since antiquity. Idli are made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils, then quickly steamed. They are consumed at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between too. If you try them and like them, an idli steamer may be a good investment. Mine cost me around $10 in my local Indian grocer.

a bowl of sambar on a serving platter with idli
idli and sambar

Idli can also be made with semolina (rava idli), or oats. They can be stuffed with nuts or vegetables. Spices and herbs can be added to the batter. We typically eat our idli plain.

Idli served with sambar is probably the healthiest meal in this cookbook and one that is on high rotation at our place.

Dosa are a typical south Indian staple consisting of crepes made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils, rather similar to the batter for idli, but somewhat thinner. A plain dosa is a very rare thing – most often they have something with them or in them.

two masala dosa on a plate with serving dish of coconut chutney
masala dosa

There are whole cookbooks devoted to what you can do with dosa. Their beauty is that they are such a versatile item. You can change the contents, the condiments, or even the base ingredient from which it is made.

Dosa are often accompanied by sides such as sambar and pickles or chutney. They are often filled with vegetables, lentils, fish or meat. A dosa, filled with a hot and spicy potato mix is wonderful. So too, a dosa filled with spiced fish.

As you see, some of these breads can be simple and some can be taken to quite complex levels. As a rule of thumb – keep the bread simple if the meal is complex. Stuffed and filled breads or dosa are best served on their own as meals in themselves.

I should mention that there is another type of bread eaten in India and it comes from Goa. The Portuguese settlers introduced European-style baking and the Goan local bread shows the influence they had. Their dinner rolls, or pão, are great with some of the local dishes. They are very like you would expect a dinner roll to be, but there is something subtly Indian about them. These bread rolls are a feature of street vendor food. They have various fillings – you could write a whole book on that topic alone.

This cookbook has a section with recipes for most of the breads mentioned above.


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