4 Indian Breads That Are Better than Sourdough

published Dec 27, 2016
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

When it comes to bread, we’re with Oprah (we love bread!) and our admiration isn’t restricted to tangy sourdough loaves or crusty baguettes. Nearly every culture has strong opinions about bread products (see: Why the English Muffin Is Vastly Superior to the Bagel), and India is no exception.

Flatbreads, in particular, are an important staple in South Asian cuisine, especially in the wheat-growing states of Northern India. There is a plethora of flatbreads, many of which are rarely found outside of home kitchens like bhatoora, deep-fried leavened bread from Punjab; khakhra, cracker-thin flatbreads from Gujarat; and puran poli, flatbread stuffed with jaggery-sweetened lentils from Maharashtra, to name a few.

But there are others that you are probably familiar with. The four highlighted here are some of the more commonplace and, if you’re feeling adventurous, also relatively easy to make.

Also known as roti or phulka, this ubiquitous griddle flatbread is the most popular accompaniment to Indian food, according to chef and cookbook author Manju Malhi. That’s because it “offers a plain and simple balance to spicy foods.” They are gritty in texture, but soft and pliable so as to sop up vegetarian dishes like dhal and scoop up meaty mains.

Like many breads in India, chapatis are made using unleavened stone-ground whole-wheat flour, called atta, which is combined with water and vegetable oil. But while the ingredients are few, the process of making chapatis is as much art as it is bread science.

“Making a soft dough out of atta, rolling pieces of the dough into thin rounds, and placing them on a griddle pan to create fluffy breads never ceases to amaze me,” says Malhi. “And the theater surrounding the complete act of preparing them from start to finish never loses its drama.”

Fun fact: In Punjabi, “roti” doesn’t just mean bread, says Chicagoan journalist Anupy Singla. “It also means ‘dinner,’ so when you say, ‘Let’s have roti,’ it’s not just about having roti on the table — it’s about having dinner. The concept of ‘roti’ is so much deeper culturally.”

2. Paratha

Parathas use the same dough as chapatis and are also made on the griddle, but are thicker, richer, and more substantial than chapatis, so they’re not eaten on a daily basis. They can either be made plain, with melted butter or ghee brushed between layers of folded dough, or stuffed, with vegetables or meat tucked in between layers of folded dough.

Plain parathas, which are flaky and almost puff pastry-like, are perfectly paired with yogurt, whipped butter, or mango or lime achaar, which are hot-and-sour South Asian-style pickles. While potato- or white radish-stuffed parathas are traditional in North India, you can stuff them with a number of different fillings, including sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, or tofu.

3. Puri

Puris are also prepared using the same dough as chapatis and parathas, but unlike chapatis and parathas, which are made on the griddle, puris are deep-fried, traditionally in ghee.

These puffed and crispy breads are a breakfast or snack-time bread, often served for picnic lunches, Sunday breakfasts, or other special occasions. And most puri connoisseurs will tell you that puris must be served piping-hot from the karahi, a circular pot that is similar in shape to a wok but with steeper sides.

The most popular accompaniments for puris are potato- or chickpea-based curries. Chole masala, or chickpeas cooked in a spicy and tangy tomato-based sauce, pairs especially well.

4. Naan

If you live in the United States and have eaten Indian food in a restaurant, you are probably already familiar this oven-baked flatbread. What you might not know is that it’s rarely, if ever, eaten in Indian homes. Instead, the unleavened breads mentioned above are more representative of the South Asian hearth.

The perfect naan has a crisp exterior, a pillowy core, a hint of sourness, and a distinctive char. It is best paired with the rich, aromatic grilled meats and curries that are emblematic of Mughlai cuisine, such as malai kofta, deep-fried paneer dumplings cooked in creamy tomato-based gravy, or reshmi kabab (literally “silky kabab”), skewers of ground chicken, yogurt, nuts, cream, and spices.

Fun fact: Naan, which means “bread” in Persian, is actually native to central Asia and was introduced to India and popularized by Moghul rulers. The Moghul emperors also introduced the tandoor, the clay oven in which naan is traditionally baked, to the subcontinent.

Do you have a favorite bread, Indian or other?