Rise and rise of flat bread: How to bake the Indian way

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We love knocking up a curry, but few amateur cooks ever attempt a naan or chapati.

Even the least high-falutin foodie has probably thrown together a curry at one time or another. Whether it's jalfrezi from a jar or a sag aloo flavoured with hand-ground spices and home-grown spinach, the average British kitchen has more than a passing acquaintance with DIY Indian cuisine.

But when it comes to accompanying a curry you've made from scratch (or one that's had a bit of help from a packet), a home-baked batch of naan bread or a stack of roti is a rather more daunting prospect – and certainly trickier than chucking a packet of pilau in the microwave. But we're missing a trick by bypassing Indian bread and missing a treat by buying it in an vacuum pack.

I've just learnt how easy and satisfying it is to make Indian breads myself – and if I can do it, any Indian fan can.

To learn the secrets of the bread that I love from the take-away, but have always been too scared to try at home, I visit Roti Chai, an Indian restaurant and "street kitchen" almost hidden by the loud rush of Oxford Street. Rohit Chugh, 43, the owner, grew up in London and remembers summer holidays spent in India with family – grandparents, cousins and aunties.

"Every year was a great experience but what stuck with me was the food," he says. "Because we had these great feasts, everywhere we went the food was laid out for us – and as we were the family from the UK they used to go over the top."

It is the food he remembers from his childhood that took him to where he is today. "I grew up knowing the Indian word roti, which means bread in the literal sense, but it also means food – dinner. My mum would say, 'come in for your roti'. We are about simple good food, and breads are a huge part of that."

The restaurant's name, Roti Chai, simply means bread and tea, the equivalent of the British "bread and butter". But it also symbolises the lifeblood of Indian families – roti is buried deep in their heritage.

Maunika Gowardhan, a private chef and Indian food blogger, agrees with the restaurateur about the significance of eating bread with Indian food. "When I think about Indian food, bread is definitely a part of the staple diet. People from the North of India tend to eat more bread than the South, but it is something everybody cares about," she says.

"There are all sorts of breads – from chapati to paratha, the list is endless, and some are so wholesome they have the quality of a meal within themselves. Indian bread is something everybody should enjoy."

With this in my mind, I step into the kitchen in the downstairs of Roti Chai, where the more sophisticated dining room is based. The upstairs serves "street food". The head chef, Karan Kashyap, shows me the most important tool in the room: the tandoori oven. It is a roaring furnace and is rounded to symbolise a clay oven. In India, he says, the walls are made from cow dung and the fire is one made of charcoal. But because they are in the centre of London they have gone for the more modern approach: gas flame and temperature control. It can still reach temperatures of 600C and I am reminded to stay well away.

My first lesson is from Awanish, the sous chef: learning about the different types of flour used to make bread. There is plain flour, used to make naan and kulcha – naan bread traditionally stuffed with potato, vegetables and spices. Whole-wheat flour is used to make chapati – the most traditional and simple of the breads, often referred to as just roti. It is also used to make lachha paratha, which is bread rolled and pleated to give it a croissant-like quality.

I watch as he starts to make the dough for naan – using the simple ingredients of flour, half a teaspoon of salt, some sugar, milk and black onion seeds.

Next, he shows me the whole-wheat flour and begins to do the same thing but with just salt, flour and water this time. These will be chapatis. He explains that the dough for the naan bread needs to be left for an hour to ferment, so he places it aside.

Then in Blue Peter style, he brings out a tray of naan dough he has made earlier and starts to make several dough balls, shaping them lovingly with his hands and placing them in a tray.

He flattens the dough with his hands, pressing lightly with his fingers until the dough is perfectly flat and round. He lets me try with the next one and when we have flattened a few pieces of each bread, he shows me where I am going to be cooking.

Chapatis are cooked on a flat pan until brown blister-like patches begin to form and it is quickly turned over. I have to use a few pieces of the flattened bread before I get it right. "Don't be scared of the flame, just love what you are doing and it will cook fine," Awanish tells me.

Naan and kulcha are a different kettle of fish than chapati, because they are cooked in the tandoor oven at 300C.

Of course, not many families in the UK have a tandoor or even a pizza oven in their kitchen. But these breads are easy to make and cook at home in a normal oven. Maunika runs her own blog, cookinacurry.co.uk, which has recipes you can try yourself. She says: "Breads such as paratha, which is stuffed bread with potato, ginger, chilli and spices in it, can be fried, while others such as naan can be put in the oven for a few minutes."

One thing that isn't in doubt is that in Britain we love Indian cuisine and the bread that's such a big part of it. However, as I suspected, we're less keen on baking it than we are on buying it, as Marks & Spencer's Indian food buyer, Shasheen Bradley, confirms: "We've seen a 14 per cent year-on-year sales growth of Indian foods in the last year, and we're seeing sales up by 20 per cent of Indian breads."

We're not as unadventurous in our tastes as we can be in our timidity towards making our own bread, though. "Garlic and coriander naan has recently overtaken the plain version as the nation's favourite," Bradley says.

Back in the heat of the kitchen, Awanish flattens the breads and this time he slaps them between his hands gently to make them extra flat and ready to be stuck to the wall with a round cotton pad. The move is quick – he uses the pad to stick the naan to the walls within three seconds (he says it takes three seconds to burn you) and it takes less than three minutes to cook.

Bubble-like patches form quickly on the naan and he uses skewers to take the bread out. The way the men move in the kitchen is almost an art form: rhythmic, intense and perfectly natural. By far my biggest achievement of the morning is doing my own three-second stick-on-the-wall (although it did take me five minutes to get near the heat).

The best thing about Indian breads is that they are versatile – they don't just have to be eaten with a curry. Dessert pancakes such as malpua (yoghurt, flour and sugar) are easy to make. You can even make a pizza base out of naan bread, something Chugh tried as a special for a few weeks, calling it a "naanza".

There is one thing I know for sure as I sit down after my cooking lesson to an Indian feast courtesy of Roti Chai – next time I have a curry, the ingredients to make bread will be at the top of my list. And I'll be giving it a go with my next attempt at a top-notch tikka.

ROTI

Serves 4

Ingredients

300g wholewheat flour
4 tsp rapeseed oil (or clarified butter)
300ml water
Half a tsp of salt
Plain flour for rolling

Method

Carefully sift the flour into a bowl. Add the oil and salt. Pour in the water and mix to form a soft dough.

On a floured surface, knead the dough well for a few minutes. Keep aside for half an hour and then knead again for a minute or two. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions.

Sprinkle a work surface liberally with flour and roll each portion out into a 15cm-diameter thin circle. Remove any excess flour and put aside. Heat a cast-iron griddle on a medium flame and slap the rolled circle on to the griddle. Cook lightly for 10 seconds or until one side browns and then flip the roti and cook the other side. If you like your rotis crispy, then toast quickly on an open flame with tongs. Serve hot and for a decadent touch, brush with butter before serving.

NAAN BREAD

Ingredients to make 4 naans

250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
Half a tsp salt
2 tbsp yoghurt
80ml whole milk
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Topping: caramelised onions, nigella seeds, fresh coriander or mint. (If you prefer you could even add fresh herbs, finely chopped, in the dough mix.)

Method

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. In another bowl mix together the milk with the vegetable oil.

Add the yoghurt to the sifted flour followed by the milk and oil. Mix everything together to make a soft, pliable dough. Turn out on the work surface and knead for five minutes until smooth. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover with cling film and rest it for 20 minutes or so in a warm place.

Preheat your oven grill to medium and place a baking tray on the top shelf of the oven. Turn the dough out and divide into four portions. Roll out quite thinly to a teardrop shape. Top each naan with coriander leaves or your preferred choice of topping and pat lightly into the naan. Prick the naan with a fork to make sure it doesn't rise.

Remove the baking tray from the oven; place the bread on it and return to the oven to cook for three minutes or until speckled lightly brown. Smear with butter and serve warm.

Recipe by Maunika Gowardhan; for more Indian recipes go to cookinacurry.co.uk

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