The Art of Roti-making

Of the many things I learnt during my fellowship year, one is the art of roti making. Within the first week of being placed at Aavishkaar in Himachal Pradesh, we were told to cook for everyone. The idea of cooking for more than just 2–3 people scared the hell out of me. That day I took half an hour to chop 5 onions. Then I started co-piloting Julmu ji, our in-house chef. Every evening I would wrap up my work by 6 and join him in the kitchen to prepare dinner. When we had just started, my role would be to go bake the rotis on the pan. Within a few days I was promoted to rolling the dough to make the rotis. These were the two things I had already done quite a few times at home. I remembered my mother’s instructions very clearly, “roll only from one side, never flip!” And that was working quite well. Then one day I was told to knead the dough. We were in a hurry and the main pilot was busy making the curries. I had no option but to get my hands dirty with white. I have kneaded before but this time it was going to be for 10 people at least. That meant a hell lot of flour, enough to get it all over me in no time. I could not have managed without the tips that came my way.

“Stand and do it!” (Trust me that’s missionary position for this art)

“Keep the container below your waist” Totally letting it go down on me.

“Go slow, gradually, use little water at once” I could see how important foreplay was.

It took me half an hour to finish and make it look like something we can make rotis from. My arms got the much needed exercise and the hanging fats are escaping every day!

After that day I could manage the roti section entirely. Every day I reached home to hang my bag behind the door, wear furry slip ons and roll up my sweater sleeves to make rotis and any opportunity to make it had to be mine. But sooooooooo many things matter when you make rotis and let me tell you how each of them affected my fellowship journey.

1. Sieving or no sieving the flour? I had seen my mother sieve the flour every single time before she put water on it and started kneading it. Sieving was meant to sift out the clumpy bits and probably make the dough smoother. But here a friend suggested to never sieve! My mother would use packaged flour, that’s all you get in metropolitans right? Well there I could still be sure that it was factory cleaned, but here the flour was coming straight out of a farmers home grinder! There could be so much wrong with the flour. And so much right too. It had a little bit of mud, peelings of wheat and thus so much more nutrition. That was lesson one for me, letting the earth enter me and accepting things raw. I loved the taste of these rotis, yes rotis do have taste. For those of you who know what I mean, it tastes a lot like multigrain bread with just a pinch of additional salt.

2. There’s only a difference of ten odd squishes and fondles between the perfect dough and the dough that only looks perfect. When I was young, me and my bhai-behen used to watch Laura Vitale’s cooking shows and she always said “do not whisk the flour so much that it gets the consistency of a bread.” And so the anti-advice fit perfectly here. I had to knead the dough as much as I could to get it perfect. Doesn’t mean I need to spend an entire evening kneading and making muscles while the others shed off weight hungry. First I would make sure that all the flour stuck to each other, then water once, water twice and water ten times if need be. Once it’s all stuck and there in one giant ball like piece, or two if you like it better that way, you can start focusing on the details. All through my school life I was watered enough to get all information stuck on me like good dough and life does knead me well enough. The more the turbulence, roller coasters or complete climaxes, the better we turn out to be.

3. Now what’s the perfect amount of dough you need to get a good sized ball to start of with? Let me tell you, life gives you only so much as you can handle. The palm of your hand is the perfect mould. You take your time to roll the amount you have taken, let the skin feel it in the centre of your palms. That’s an exercise a senior at work had taught me to do. It’s extremely calming and a 30 second meditation. Close your eyes and roll that soft dough and finish it off with a gentle press.

Ps : I do know I unnecessarily sound sexual. Let yourself free and enjoy it.

4. Now it’s time to spread the love you have created. Recently I discovered I have commitment issues and that spreading and rolling the dough too much might tear the it apart. But I have let it tear apart far too many times to know that that just helps even more… because then you have to collect the pieces of your torn roti, knead it back together… and do you remember how good kneading is for an even softer roti? Well the next one turns out to be super soft and yummy! Now when you use the rolling pin, be sure not to bang your fingers into the utensils around. This is a sad side effect only a true roti maker would empathise with. After all how much space could one need to be able to roll a perfect roti? Let me tell you, any amount of space isn’t enough. Sometimes the tips of your nails will scratch against the marble front of your kitchen workspace and sometimes from the steel of the next pan kept right ahead of your things, your nail with break and you’ll make much noise. But that’s okay, it’s just a part and parcel of making rotis.

5. Now it’s time to do the baking. Can you even eat an uncooked roti? At first it’s only important to wait for the pan to get hot enough, then throw in the rolled out mess you’ve prepared. Wait for tiny bubbles to make themselves visible before you turn it over. Turning it too soon will make all the heat go away, heat is important for a well cooked one here. A new rule in my love life is right here at this stage, “Dheemi Aanch Pe Khaana Pakaana Hain”. And I’m not even trying to talk about the roti with ghee, which brings me to the next important lesson.

6. Are you sure you want to ghee-ify it? Now some people like dry rotis and others just can’t get it down their throats without some lubrication. It’s completely a choice and also a matter of consent. A roti will taste just as good without ghee and the ghee might add calories. But you can also run down those calories and make every roti eating experience marvellous by putting this ghee. My friend, Aishwarya, who I am sure is one of the first few to read this, does not like ghee on her rotis. Just trivia in case you ever meet her.

7. The direct blowing technique, is when you place the half baked roti on the stove burner directly to excite it and wait for it to blow up like a balloon. It releases the roti of its stress and is extremely yummy. When it’s a well kneaded dough and unflipped rolling has been practiced well, you learn to enjoy the blowing up process, and trust me it’s worth every bit.

8. Super roti making, a beautiful woman taught this to me. No pun here. Multitasking with rolling, baking and switching sides. While I roll one of the rotis, the other one will be on the pan… I can manage both but when you take off the roti to put it directly on the stove for some blown up rotis, what do you do with the empty pan, you do not hold it empty in one of your hands. Take the half baked roti off the pan with tongs, put an uncooked freshly rolled one on the pan with your left hand, now hold the handle of the pan with your left hand and pick it up, use the stove burner directly by putting the half baked roti in your right hand right on top of it. Wait. Turn it around once it blows up, wait for the slightest black burn marks, while they are rumoured to cause cancer, no fun in life without a little burn here and there. Then your pan goes back on the stove for the next round of rolling. This was the most important lesson in Himachal, I saved fuelwood and gas both in this technique.

It’s been 5 months since the fellowship got over and I haven’t made a single roti since then, I have also spent a year to finish this particular blog, while it doesn’t sound as great and well worded, it’s special to me. :)

Hope I inspired you to make some rotis tonight!

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