Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Frequently asked food questions - about Indian food?

How many times have we heard that India is a land of diverse culture? Experiencing diversity can be a very enjoyable experience, but learning about the nuances, names and the history of different foods can be pretty confusing and contradicting! Every region in India has a signature cuisine that uniquely identifies it. Each is unique in its main ingredients used, spices and cooking methods. Yet there is some common thread that ties them, hence the confusion. I am myself faced with some daunting questions about Indian foods and its terminology. Here is one question that has bothered me for a long time and I was determined to find the answer. Here is what I have gathered from various sources.

Is there a difference between a ‘roti’, ‘phulka’ and ‘chappati’?
On hind sight, all three terms seem to mean the same. Wheat flour mixture called ‘atta’, combined with a proportion of salt, oil and water to form dough. Small portions of the dough rolled out into thin discs, which are toasted on a griddle (tawa). This is the basic Indian bread, consumed in most Indian homes. So why the different names for the seemingly same things?

Roti is the universal term for all Indian breads. It might just be the most ambiguous term in the Indian cuisine terminology. Just plain roti can mean phulka roti, naan roti, double roti (bread make after double rising of dough), rumali roti, makki-di-roti, tandoori roti or any other form of desi bread.

Phulka is a thin roti, which is oil or grease free. The dough is made with just water, sometimes even omitting salt. Then portions of the dough is rolled out into thin discs about 6 inches in diameter and half roasted on a tawa, then on an open flame. The phulka puffs up into a ball due to accumulation of steam inside it. Once it puffs up, it is removed from heat and served sooka (dry) or without any added grease. This becomes a phulka (literally means swollen) roti.

Chappati can be a thin or a thick roti. It is called a chappati because it is traditionally made by patting the dough balls between the palms of the two hands and flattening it(chappat in hindi means flat). So some veterans would say that it is not a chappati if it is not flattened by hand, i.e. without the use of a rolling pin. A chappati may or may not puff up like a phulka. Some also cook it completely on a tawa, by applying slight pressure on the surface of the dough-disc thereby cooking it completely. But I have noticed that chappatis cooked this way tended to harden up quickly, atleast on my electric stove. I did get much better results on my gas stove at my previous abode. If you have an electric stove like me and are wondering how to puff up your chappati-phulkas, look no further. Thanks to my friend V, I am now cautiously satisfied with the quality of my chappati-phulkas! Here is what a chappati-phulka grill looks like (available under $5 in most Indian stores)

You need to have the tawa on one burner, and the chappati-phulka grill on the other, on high heat. Then once the rolled out disc on the tawa is half roasted on both sides, transfer it to the grill with tongs and watch it puff :).

Anyway, with all the above discussion, I think the ‘rotis’ I make at home are rolling-pin-rolled-chappati-phukas! I could just call them rotis - the generic term, but would that be misuse of terminlogy? I would love it if anyone can add more insight into the name origins.

Now that we are somewhat clear on that, what on earth is a Rotli and a Rotla?
If you ever had that question, congratulations, you are truly experiencing the diversity and getting into the regional terms. Rotli and Rotla are Gujrati terms. Rotli, I believe is Gujrati (Gujju) for roti. And Rotla is Gujju for the Marathi word Bhakri. Bhakri is term given to thick 'rotis' made from non-wheat flours like sorghum (jowar) and millet (ragi or bajra). These 'rotis' are patted by the palms of the hands on a flat surface and cooked on the tawa.
Any other questions you've had out cooking terms, bring 'em on. We will ponder on them together!
Another question that has bothered me is one about South Indian, Tamil food. What, if any, is the difference between a kozhumbu, kootu and sambar?

  • Kozhumbu (pronounced something like: ko-eyh-m-bu.) seems to be the universal (tamil) term for all south Indian main dishes which have thick, yet liquid consistency.
  • If any kozhumbu contains sambar powder it becomes a sambar, I guess.
  • If kootu is the name given for all dishes with contain dal and veggies, why does a dish called poricha kozhumbu (dal and veggies, spiced with coconut paste) not called a kootu?
  • If a kootu must not contain coconut, how do we explain Mor (buttermilk) Kootu (contains coconut, buttermilk and veggies)? For that matter what is the difference between Mor Kootu and Mor Kozhumbu
  • If kozhumbu must contain a dal, then why is Mor Kozhumbu (doesnot contain dal) or Vatral Kozhumbu have that name?
  • If kozhumbu must have tamarind, what about Mor Kozhumbu (no tamarind, contains buttermilk and coconut)?

    See how terminology can quickly get confusing? Please anybody out there care to shed light on this? If I get sufficient info on the comments, I intend to compile the answers for other obsessive people who might be wondering about the issue!

    Ashwini said...

    Very nice. We could spend the rest of our lives doing this. I think you captured the roti bit well. Btw I have the same phulka grill. I guess the only unity is they are all delicious :-)

    Priya said...

    wow , ive never seen a phulka grill b4, in india , we directly make it on the burner. Have to look out in the stores next time, and i always have a problem with the wheat flour, which one is best,pls dont suggest golden temple i really dont like the taste of it.
    Kootu is any vegetable with dal and bleded with very mild spices.The kootu has the same amt of vegetables and dal and its not watery , they are of thicker consictency.

    And poritha kuzhambu has tamarind in it and contains less vegetables and more dal , more like sambar, except for the diff in few spices and the finally the tempered ingredients are added. If its a specialiy like coconut poritha kuzhambu, then grated coconut are fried along with the tempering ingredients and added to the gravy.
    And kolambu doesnt necessarily have to have dal.Like u said if it doesnt have sambar powder then it becomes kolambu. Like puli kuzhambu, thakkali kuzhambu, mor kuzhambu, vatral kuzhambu. The main ingredient is used more and hence the name of the main ingredient is added to kuzhambu, like pulusu in andhra, kuzhambu is in tamil nadu.
    Correct me if iam wrong.

    GourmayMasala said...

    Ashwini - Thanks. Yup we can debate back and forth about these issues! There are as many variations as there are people making these dishes!!

    Priya - Thanks for taking the time to comment. It clears up some of my questions. I didn't know that poritha kuzhumbu had tamarind, atleast not from the Samayal book by Viji Varadarajan... I guess the difference between kootu and kuzhumbu is in the proportion of dal and vegetables! Thanks for this insight :)

    Now on to the wheat flours, I don't like golden temple either. The chappati-phulkas turn out pretty rubbery I think. Try out Swad brand whole wheat flour, it is better than golden temple. Also Nature's best is good if you can find it at your store. Also Laxmi brand atta is good.

    Priya said...

    Thanx for your suggestion on wheat floru, i bought a wheat flour last week in indian stores and it was just a plain packet with a ordinary label stuck that has Natures best att printed on it, i wonder i if it really is the same brand. Anyways bought it to try out my luck.Iam so fed up with the other brands.
    And Samayal book has tamarind in poritha kuzhambu, but its not necessary to have tamarind, the idea is frying the main ingredient that gives an extra punch to the curry, it can onion, coconut, garlic or anything else.

    GourmayMasala said...

    Not sure about the nature's best packing... The one I bought was packaged in a colorfully. But I have seen multiple packaging for the swad atta, so you might still have the original brand. The dough made from this atta is slightly more brown than golden temple.

    I must be mistaken about Poritha Kozhumbu then! Thanks for pointing it out, Priya.

    Kay said...

    Great writeup!

    From what I know,

    Sambar always has dal in it. It also has the sambar masala ingredients (dry powder or ground fresh as a paste). Without dal and this masala, it's not sambar, it becomes a kulambu.

    Kulambu - dal is not a necessary ingredient, but may contain - A thakkali kulambu can have dal, but it's still not a sambar bcos there are no sambar-masala (ground fresh or dried powder)..

    Kootu has vegetables + dal (but no sambar powder). It may have tamarind/lemon juice in recent times, but traditionally, no! Many kootus are spiced with coconut+jeera+green chillies paste or just coconut paste. Some communites call it poricha kulambu, but mostly it goes by the name 'kootu'. Kootu can contain coconut or not. It's not an necessary item, but increases the flavors amazingly. almost all restaurants have coconut in their kootu.

    Morkulambu is Tamilian whereas Mor-kootan or More curry is predominantly Keralite. There are atleast 100 different varieties of mor-kulambu in Tamilnadu. It varies from region to region.

    Mor kulambu - in most of Tamilian styles does have dal in it (soaked and ground to a fine paste).. some Keralite styles, from Palakkad have dal too.

    A kulambu is just a type of gravy which is not a sambar. the consistency may be like sambar or slightly thinner, but not very thin like a rasam.

    It may contain tamarind, or even dal (in paruppu kulambu, paruppu urundai kulambu, keerai kulambu and some types of thakkali kulambu, etc) but there are no rules. If it is predominantly tamarind based, it is puli kulambu. If it has vatral instead of veggies, it is vatral kulambu..

    A puli kulambu usually has a different masala for it, but can use sambar powder, in the absence of puli-kulambu powder/masala.

    But if it has sambar powder + cooked dal, it becomes a sambar! :)

    Did I confuse you more? LOL

    Anonymous said...

    sambar will always contain dal and Kozhumbu will not have dal. This is the main difference between Kozhumbu and sambar. Based on the main ingridient Kozhumbu is called mor Kozhumbu, puli Kozhumbu, Vatral Kozhumbu, etc.

    Kitchenmate said...

    GM: I saw those amazing phulkas and wanted to leave a comment, but when i entered this window, i could see lots of activites going on, may be i should have left my message, before reading them, but now.. I am confused though clear with sambar, kootu, kulambu...:)
    I am not going to leave anymore comment on any blog right now... confusing buddy:):):)
    Let me be clear, sambar has dal and sambar powder, but....:) the coffee-bite ad, coffee-toffee

    Shammi said...

    Wow, as many opinions as there are people! :) I'm not going to get into this debate... but it sure is interesting, the questions you've raised, GM! :D

    Luv2cook said...


    I an envious. I have NEVER seen that phulka grill in the Indian store before. I should check online..hmm...or devise another alternative..

    wonder how a cookie, cake cooking rach would work. I am going to try that next time.

    GourmayMasala said...

    Kay - Gosh! Thanks for taking the time to comment buddy :)Your input has helped to relieve some of the confusion... So the names differ with communites too!

    Thanks Anonymous for adding to the discussion!

    Kitchenmate - Well said... coffee-toffee aptly summarizes our discussions :)

    Shammi - very diplomatic indeed!

    Luv2cook - I have not tried using alternative grills. Although a flat cake rack etc could be tried. If you do experiment, keep in mind that the phulka must not touch the burner. It tends to stick to it. You might need to prop it up a bit?

    I haven't seen this grill in any online stores so far though :(

    Sumi said...

    Great discussion...
    Iam new to blogging,and I should say that Iam very excited to see the same questions (about chappati roti..)which were in my mind being discussed in this blog.But I find that there are still no clear answers for that, compared to the sambhar -kulambhu qusetion.

    Since there are so many opinions on the sambhar - kulambhu issues , I do not want to throw in mine and confuse others, but I would like to agree with definitions given by Kay - nicely written.
    Have fun blogging everyone.

    lost in thoughts said...
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    lost in thoughts said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    lost in thoughts said...

    Very informative & detailed post. Hope you dont mind my making some corrections :

    (1) 'Bhakri' is a Marathi word, not Hindi (as you mentioned). Bhakri is a authentic Marathi dish like Sambar is authentic South Indian. Most loved Bhakri is the Taandalaachi Bhakri (Rice Bhakri).

    (2) "chappat in hindi means flat"

    Also chappat is not a authentic Hindi word. It is a marathi word....used liberally in 'Mumbaized' Hindi :).

    GourmayMasala said...

    SpiceHut- Thanks for stopping by!
    Thanks for pointing my mistake about Bhakris! They are undoubtedly Maharashtrian. I have changed the post...

    You raise a very interesting point about the chappatis. The post should have said 'chappata' which is hindi for flat... But I am looking deeper into the name origin which might after all be Maharashtrian again...

    Again, thats for your interesting feedback!

    Sumi - Thanks! Welcome to blogging... Good Luck!

    Anonymous said...

    Your blog is simply superb.
    I was looking for a chappati-phulka grill online (could not find it in any indian store in Chicago), can you suggest any site that carries this item ?
    Is there another name for this item ?
    Can I use chappati-phulka grill on a ceramic glass top stove.

    GourmayMasala said...

    Anonymous - Thank you for your encouragement. I am glad you like my posts.

    Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this chappati-grill in any of the online sources. I would suggest asking folks at the Indian store if they could stock this item for you.

    Otherwise next time you make a trip to the east coast (NY/NJ), visit some of the huge Indian stores there. I am sure you will be able to find it there.

    I have never used a ceramic glass top stove... so, sorry I can't advice you on that.

    Anonymous said...

    To the Anonymous who wanted to know where in Chicago you can get this grill: try Patel Brothers on Devon Street. Or Kamdar Plaza. If they don't have it, they should be able to tell you where to find it.

    I've used a cookie cooling rack with as much success. It was my only option when we were up in the boonies in upstate NY. The only problem is that the grill is not as thick or strong as the one found in the Indian stores. But it works.

    Anonymous said...

    hi, i got golden temple drum aatta from an idndian store in st louis. it tastes like maida. can anyone suggest any other brands which taste like wheat and is not finely ground, i.e. its grains are coarse. also where can i get this brand? thanks

    there are also many types of golden temple atta. what is the difference between these types

    Anonymous said...

    i think kulambu and sambar are same. most Brahmin families traditionally say kulambu for sambar, sathuamudhu for rasam, etc. there is nothing about it with the ingredients.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the great clarification on bread names _ I make what I call chapati (using soft tofu in place of water)to sell at the farmers market here & some folks take exception to the name - "aren't these roti?" Always sell out anyway, no matter what I call em.
    Rogers mills here in British Columbia make an excellent roti flour (unbleached white with bran) under the brand name Mumtaz. Don't know if they market to the US tho. Ask them at

    Anonymous said...

    I am a Tamilian who grew up in Tamil Nadu, and read and write Tamil fluently. This is what I understand of the terms:

    kuzhambu- a liquid dish that is mixed with rice before eating and usually has a handful of vegetables, though not always. The consistency is `flowing', not thick. A separate dry vegetable preparation is an essential accompaniment (called curry in Tamil)

    puLi itta kuzhambu-made with tamarind (puLi) in it, and this includes sambar (my gandmother used to call it puLi kuzhambu!), but also the mendhiya kuzhambu / vattral kuzhambu / thaLaga kuzhambu etc. The latter are made without COOKED dal. All kuzhambus I know contain mendhiyam (methi) in them, which is considered the defining spice for a kuzhambu, as it is considered to go with the sour taste of tamarind. Also, if cooked dal is used, it tends to be toor dal (though moong dal sambhar is well known).

    poritha kuzhambu- made WITHOUT puLi (to contrast with the puLi itta kuzhambu); made of cooked dal with some vegetables and spices; the spices are usually fried (poritha in Tamil) and ground up wet at time of making; mendhiyam is NOT used, as no puLi is used. The cooked dal used is toor dal.

    My grandmother always used the above terms as opposites (meaning with and without tamarind)

    kootu (also called poritha kootu)- a thick dal and vegetable mix, with freshly ground spices, of which jeera is considered the defining one (though sometimes pepper is used, and mendhiyam is NEVER used); the cooked dal used is normally moong dal. This may be mixed with rice and no separate dry vegetable curry needed. Accompaniments are usually one or more of thayir pachadi (raita), thuvaiyal, pickle, appalam / vadam (nowadays chips!)

    Mor kuzhambu is a special case- normally it contains no tamarind, though I know of at least one version that mixes tamarind and yoghurt half and half! In general, I justify the use of the term kuzhambu here by the sourness of mor kuzhambu, irrespective of the source of it (yoghurt in this case).

    There is also masiyal (also called puLi itta masiyal), which I have not seen anyone mention. It does not fit into any of the categories above. It usually has cooked toor dal, tamarind, lots of vegetables, but NO ground or powdered spices, only seasoning with a few selected spices (including mendhiyam- remember it contains puLi, which begs for menthiyam). When made with greens such as spinach, this is called keerai masiyal. It is sometimes made with a mixture of toor and moong dals.

    GourmayMasala said...

    Anon -

    Thanks for taking the time for this detailed comment. wonderful insight on tamil foods.

    I must appreciate your first line- it does add plenty of credibility!

    Anonymous said...

    I too had a problem with the atta...or rather the people who would occasionally eat at my place did...Then they suggested Sujata..but after 3 years of using it, (it had a very good hand feel when making the dough, & made great looking & great tasting phulkas), when I went the other day to replenish my almost empty canister, I was tols Sujat a brand is no longer available. I switchd to buying KANWAN brand ready to cook frozen chapatis. They turn out great without the fuss & muss & mess of dough making (though I loved the exercise, deep massage & deep conditioning of the hands that I got as a bonus).