Ask a group of Indians what roti-chapati-phulka mean to them (as I did recently on my Facebook fan page: Indian as Apple Pie), and you can bet there won’t be universal agreement. Some will say roti refers to the bread we Indians eat, while others will say it refers to a meal that may or may not include bread. Some will say chapati is roti cooked flat, and that phulka refers to roti or chapati that puffs up with steam. Still others have never heard of the term phulka.
I’d say they are all right, in their own ways. In Punjab, where wheat is the key crop, roti is king. When Punjabis are called to eat a meal, we’re often told to “eat our roti,” whether it’s bread or rice on the table. It’s kind of like the saying “breaking bread.”
One side of my family hails from Chandigarh and the other is from the small village of Bhikhi, in the heart of Punjab. There, we typically use the words roti, chapati, and phulka interchangeably and we mean the bread you’re about to learn about. Regardless of what you call it, know this beautifully simple flatbread, which is much like a tortilla, is essentially made of only two ingredients: finely milled, stone-ground whole-wheat flour and water. We use it for everything from scooping up veggies on our plates to mopping up curries.
Make them again and again, but know that it can take years to perfect the art of a perfectly round roti. I always joke that it only took me a decade. But not to worry—it’s a delicious journey.
- In the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer, combine 3 cups / 410 g of the chapati flour and the water and blend until a dough ball forms. You can do this by hand in a deep bowl, but it’s messier—which is a big reason why many of us Indian–American moms dread making roti. If mixing by hand, put the flour in first and make a well in the center. Add the water and stir vigorously using 1 hand until the mixture comes together into a ball. This is where experience comes in handy. If the dough is sticky, add a little more dry flour. If it’s too dry, add a little more water, 1 teaspoon at a time.
- Transfer the dough to a deep, wide bowl and knead by hand for 2 to 3 minutes, until the dough reaches the desired consistency. Like any other bread, taking the time to knead the dough well is the key to successful roti, as kneading it develops a network of gluten, the principal protein in wheat. That helps it retain water, which turns to steam when cooking and lightens, or aerates, the rotis. Cover with a damp dish towel or paper towel and set aside at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes. Roti dough can be used immediately, but I find that it helps to let it sit for a little while.
- Place the remaining ½ cup / 70 g of dry chapati flour on a plate. Pull off a golf ball-sized chunk (2 tablespoons) of the dough and roll it between your palms until it is as round as possible. The rounder and smoother you can get the dough ball at this point, the better your results will be later, when you’re rolling it out. If it is too sticky to work with easily, roll the ball lightly in the plate containing the flour. The trick to making perfectly moist roti is to use the dry flour sparingly. If you use too much, the roti will dry out when cooked.
- Press the ball between your palms until it is slightly flattened. Place it on a dry, lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a thin, 6-inch / 15-cm disc. As you roll, practice pressing down on the rolling pin more one side. If done correctly, the roti will turn very slowly on its own, leading to a perfectly round roti. Don’t worry if you have trouble, as this technique takes years to perfect. If you can’t get it down, and the roti sticks to the surface while rolling, just pick it up, dip it very lightly in the dry flour on both sides, and roll it out again.
- Repeat the process until you have made 6 to 8 rotis and placed them on a platter. The thickness and size of roti varies household to household. Generally, the thinner they are, the better they will puff up later. And not to worry—if you mess up, just roll the dough into a ball and start over.
- Warm an ungreased tava, flat griddle, or cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. The key is to heat the pan enough that the roti will cook, but not so hot that it will sear as soon as you lay it in the pan. Test the heat level by flicking a drop of water onto the surface. If it evaporates right away, it is hot enough. Experienced roti cooks often just touch the pan quickly with their bare fingertips to assess the heat level. If you want to try this, just be sure your hand is completely dry. Any moisture will lead to a burn—I’m speaking from experience here.
- Carefully place 1 roti flat in the hot pan. Cook for 30 seconds and turn it over. The roti will be barely cooked. Cook on the other side for 30 seconds. I’ve been perfecting my roti recipe for years, and find that cooking for 30 seconds on both sides first makes for a softer roti later.
- Turn over the roti. Ball up a dry paper towel or dish towel in 1 hand, use it to press down on the roti, and cook for 40 seconds, until the roti starts to puff up. This is how the roti cooks best—with steam searing through it. The process is counterintuitive, because if you press gently where it puffs up, you’ll see the rest of the roti blow up like a balloon. Turn the roti over and press down again. Cook for another 40 seconds, until the roti is lightly browned on both sides and cooked through. For even better results, after cooking it through (but not completely) in the pan and when it starts to puff up, transfer it to an open flame on another burner. Working quickly with the tongs, turn it, move it around, and flip until it puffs up for you. Be careful not to let it sit for too long, as it will burn. This is best done on a gas burner, but can also be done on an electric burner covered by a metal diffuser.
- Transfer the roti back to the platter and lightly apply the butter to the top side. Don’t butter roti that you plan to store; see the note below for storage information. If stacking and serving immediately, stack the roti with the buttered sides facing each other. This way, the butter stays contained and never touches both sides of any 1 roti.
- Repeat Steps 7, 8, and 9 until you have made all the rotis, making sure to clean out the pan after every 3 rotis you prepare.
- Clean the tava thoroughly. Repeat Steps 3 through 9 until you have used all of the remaining dough. I find that the best way to regulate the pan’s heat level is to remove the pan from the heat (keeping the heat level steady on the cooktop) while you roll out the roti.
- Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.**
*The key to making good roti is in using the correct flour. Typically, chapati flour is made from durum wheat, which is stone ground until it is very fine. It can be found in any Indian grocery store and is rarely found in mainstream Western grocers. When shopping for it, purchase atta, which is 100 percent whole-wheat flour rather than maida, which also contains bleached white flour. If you don’t have a nearby Indian grocer, look for whole-wheat pastry flour, which is the closest you can come to traditional chapati flour. Using regular whole-wheat flour found in the West can result in hard, slightly bitter roti because it’s a different type of wheat (typically hard red winter wheat). If that’s all you have, mix 2 parts whole-wheat flour with 1 part all-purpose white flour to achieve the right taste and texture.
**Rotis store well. If you are planning to store them, do not butter them. First, set them aside to cool completely. Place the cooked roti in stacks of 10 and wrap each stack in a dry paper towel or thin cloth. The cloth absorbs extra moisture. Enclose the stack in tightly sealed aluminum foil or plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or the freezer for up to 3 months. To reheat, warm the rotis on the stovetop in a dry cast-iron pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes or place in the oven at 300°F / 150°C for 2 to 3 minutes, butter, and serve.
You can also store uncooked dough for later use. I freeze small batches for as long as 3 months. Defrost the dough the morning before you plan to cook them.