There are two main staple foods in India, rice and Indian bread. Bread made from wheat flour is eaten mostly in the Northern parts of India whilst rice is the main staple of the South.
Maybe because it's because my mother was a baker but I love properly baked bread and I learned to bake bread at some ridiculous age (like at about 6 years old). When I started to cook Indian food, I soon latched on to making my own chapatis - the easiest bread (possibly in the world), and then onto making naan breads and parathas and all sorts of Indian breads.
Most bread in the north of India is made from milled wheat flour, either atta or maida.In the south of India where rice is the main staple, the breads are more like pancakes or crêpes and can be made from a variety of flours including rice flour and lentil flour. These are often fermented as a batter and then cooked like a pancake.
See the Indian Flour page for bit on different flours used in Indian cooking
Northern style bread, particularly paratha is often stuffed with mashed vegetables creating a snack meal - ideal for a packed lunch. In the south the dosas and uttapam are also used as a carrier for other food.
The most common northern Indian breads are chapati and roti, these are very similar, chapatis are, perhaps, slightly thinner. These breads are simply flour and water with a little salt and maybe some ghee. They are made from atta flour and other name that you might come across for roti, phulka and rotli are pretty much the same thing.
A really excellent bread that I had in Poona is romali roti. This is essentially roti dough but made with a mix of maida and atta. It is rolled out tissue thin and cooked on an upturned wok or large frying pan for a less than a minute. It is folded like a large handkerchief to give several layers of beautifully soft bread.
Parathas are usually thicker and use ghee or oil in the dough which makes them more flaky when cooked. Traditionally they are made more flakey by rolling out, brushing with melted ghee, then folding and rolling out again repeatedly, layering the dough. Paratha is also make from atta flour and probably the most popular bread in Indian cuisine and this is partly because of its versatility. It can be made in any shape, it can be stuffed with virtually anything and is eaten at all times of day.
Naan bread is an Indian bread which is leaven and very popular in the west. It is made with maida flour, a general purpose flour which is a softer flour more finely milled. It can be leavened with either yeast or baking powder. For the best naans the dough is made with yoghurt or milk curd rather than water. Naans are traditionally made in a tandoor oven rather than being pan fried so they end up flat on one side but risen on the other.
A variant of this is the kulcha, where the dough is similar to naan but can be pan fried or grilled or cooked in an oven. Kulchas are a Punjabi speciality and often also have mashed potatoes, minced onion and spices mixed in with the dough
Another interesting Indian bread is the poori. This is made like a roti but is deep fried so it blows up like a balloon. It's a strange mix of crisp and soft. Pooris can be made with all sorts of different flour; traditional atta or you can mix in some rice flour or semolina.
Bathura is another deep fried bread; its like a cross between kulcha and poori - it uses yoghurt and baking powder in the dough but is deep fried.
Gakhar is a mughlai bread high in oil content. The dough is made with oil rather than water and they are first steamed, then roasted in an oven and then hhot ghee is poured over them.
Bhakri is a hard bread, more like a biscuit; like a hard, coarse chapati, and although sometimes made with wheat flour can also be made with millet or sorghum flours. This is real rustic food from Maharshtra and Gujerat and is often eaten by farmer in the fields, but it is still served at traditional Indian meals
In the South of India wheat flour breads are less common. Instead they make delicious things with rice flour, lentil flour and semolina. These are often more like pancakes than bread but serve the same function.
One of the most popular Indian breads in the south is the dosa. This is a pancake made from a mixture of rice and lentil flour. Traditionally the rice is ponni rice which was developed and is grown in Tamil Nadu; the lentils are washed urad dhal. Both of these are ground very fine, made into a batter and left to ferment overnight before cooking in a frying pan or tava like a pancake. This can be eaten at breakfast with chutney or pickles, or for dinner with fish or a curry.
There are hundreds variations on the dosa; a quick snack version called rava dosa is made from rice flour, wheat flour and semolina (rava), it does not need to be fermented and can be made in minutes. Dosas can also be made just from wheat flour like simple pancakes.
You can include onions and spices, cheese, vegetables and chutneys to create all sorts of variation.
A cousin of the dosa is the uttapam. This is a similar batter mix to the traditional dosa but is made into a thicker pancake and is cooked with tomatoes and onions and chilli. Other vegetables are optional and the result is like a pizza in appearance.
Idlis are another creation from a similar batter but with less rice in proportion to the dhal. Again the batter is fermented but this time the batter is steamed in an idli steamer (like an old fashioned egg poacher). These are normally a breakfast dish served with chutney or sambar.
Appams or hoppers are even simpler, using only rice flour, they are made into little thin bowl shaped pancakes and are popular all over southern India and Sri Lanka. Again there are all the variations using eggs, milk or honey
Various types of lentil flours are used to make vada. These are deep fried breads like doughnuts, they are very popular in the south of India where they have been made since records began. Yet again there are loads of variants - rava vada (semolina flour again), potatoes and different types of lentils.
Pathiri is a very simple rice Indian bread eaten in the Kerala region - principally my Muslims. It is like a poppadom made from rice flour.
Which brings us to the humble poppadum itself - a cracker or type of flatbread extremely popular in the west. It can be eaten with dips broken into food, used to make wraps or eaten like crisps. They are made from gram flour (besam) which is flour made from chickpeas. Traditionally the flour is made into a batter and then dried in the sun (so no chance in the UK then). Poppadoms are made all over India and there are as many spellings as there are varieties.
So - off to the supermarket to buy a sliced white loaf?
I haven't done recipes for all the Indian breads mentioned here yet (and there are more!) but when I do one with a meal I will write it up. In the mean time you can check out the ones that I have done by visiting Indian Bread Recipes page.
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