Chapatis are simple, griddled whole-wheat flatbreads, a staple over much of India. In some places they’re called rotis, but in Mumbai, where my husband’s family is from, it’s chapatis all the way, eaten with almost every meal no matter how basic or extravagant. His grandmother’s chapatis are legendary, and often spoken of in reverent tones–so thin, so delicate and fragrant. When we visited Mumbai, his aunt gave me a tutorial on how to make the flatbreads. Hands flying, she produced each flawless, floury round like it was second nature. Which, of course, it is. But for those of us whose pie crusts always end up looking like a dog gnawed on the edges, chapatis seem out of the question.
It’s too bad, because the breads are very healthful, containing nothing but whole wheat flour, salt, and water. (OK, you can brush them with butter at the end, but still.) Their texture–chewy and soft, with spots of char and puffy air bubbles–is wonderful, and hot off a griddle, they feel almost alive.
Besides a rolling pin, you don’t need anything in particular to make chapatis, although some people use a small, round platform, on which they roll out the dough. I sat down last night with several cookbooks and a determination to make passable chapati for dinner.
Click through for DIY chapati, photographed step by step. If I can do it, you can do it.
Yield: 10 breads
2 cups whole wheat atta flour, or whole wheat all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup water
vegetable oil, for kneading, and for the bowl
Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Pour 3/4 cup water over the flour, and mix it into a uniform dough with your hands. If the dough is too dry, add the rest of the water until the dough is pliable; if it’s too sticky, add a few more spoonfuls of flour. When the dough comes together, remove it from the bowl and knead it well for 5 to 10 minutes, oiling your hands if necessary to avoid sticking, until the dough is uniform and pliable. Lightly oil a bowl, and place the ball of dough in the bowl, turning it once to coat with oil. Let the dough rest for at least 20 minutes, and up to 4 hours.
Pinch off 10 equal portions of the dough, and form them into 10 balls. Place the dough balls on wax paper or foil.
Place about 1 cup of flour in a bowl. Take a dough ball, and place it into the flour, pressing it out into a disk as you do so. Flip it over, and repeat on the other side.
Gently roll the floured disk of dough out into a circle. Have a light touch, as the dough is thin and delicate. If the dough sticks to the work surface, flour the surface, and dredge the dough again in the flour. The chapatis should be about 6 inches across, but make them thicker if you’re worried about the dough breaking. If you’re advanced, make them bigger and thinner! (Mine are definitely not perfect circles, but that’s okay, they taste just as good.)
Heat a skillet over high heat. The pan is ready when a pinch of flour starts to brown immediately. Gently flop the dough round into the skillet, and let it cook about 1 minute, until the bottom is getting light spots of brown.
Flip the bread over, and cook again, about 1 minute. Using a clean cloth or paper towel to protect your hand, start to press down hard on in a few spots. This should make the bread puff up and acquire air pockets.
Take the chapati off the heat, slick it with a little butter if you want, and keep it between towels to keep it warm until you’ve cooked the other chapatis.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2009