Friday, June 17, 2011

The Chappati Heartache

How do normal people react to reading their own past work ? Everytime I re-read something I have written, I cringe a little bit. To me, my work always seems juvinile, with plenty of room for improvement. Recently, I stumbled upon a piece that was published about 7 years ago on Sulekha. This was back when postings on that site had to be edited and approved by a reviewing team. I titled the article 'The chappati heartache' and it was meant to be a sarcastic yet useful guide for the kitchen self-starter to make their own chappatis/rotis from scratch. I have come a long way in my kitchen experiences since then, yet many of my feelings about making rotis have not changed. I still enjoy the whole process and more so enjoy complaining about it. As I read this article, I had an instant urge to edit my own work. But the older and wiser me decided that any changes would just ruin the innocence and the sheer geekiness that shines so proudly from it. So here, for your reading pleasure and for my records, I present to you the unedited 'Chappati Heartache' -- an account of my culinary frustrations more than 7 years ago.

The Chappati Heartache

The soul of Indian food is composed of rotis. These complex carbohydrates form the staple food of a billion people worldwide. They are delicious to eat and highly nourishing for the body (proteins and fiber). So naturally, they are a delightful pain to make. The procedure is messy, time consuming, exhausting and at the end of it all, you are just glad there is something to eat! I would attribute getting consistent (good) chappati results over and over again to a stroke of pure luck. At every attempt at chappati making, you get closer to getting better. Which only means that you will never be perfect, just like an infinite series only promises to converge at infinity. Are you willing to wait till eternity to eat perfect chappatis made by you?

If you don't believe me, allow me to exemplify my theory with -- myself! I am your average girl next door, have been away from home for several years, eating copious amounts of rice and pasta during those years and close to being sick of rice and any form of beans. I greatly enjoy (and sorely miss) my mother's cooking. I have been trying to make chappatis for a while now but the art of chappati-making completely eludes me! Sure, every once in a while, I have the blessing to enjoy my own handmade steamy, puffy, soft, melt-in-my-mouth chappatis, but the sheer amount of times I have had to eat thick, hard, chewy chappatis just ruins the pleasure. It's like my chappatis are forever jinxed by a cosmic conspiracy. How else would you explain that in say, x number of times I have made chappatis, 10x! uniquely different things have gone wrong? Now, do I see some heads nodding in agreement? Haven't we all been there, ladies (and um... the real gentlemen)? Hence the chappati heartache -- consistency is the key in chappati making, but the lock is unfortunately password protected.

Don't get me wrong. I love the entire cooking process, but failure frustrates me. Repeated failure prompts me to write about it. It is my belief that cooking results directly indicate the mood and frustration level of the chef. I have noticed that if I am frustrated about something (other than cooking), my chappatis come out great. This I believe is because, frustration is good for the dough-making process, you have all the motivation to beat the crap out of it and the dough comes out soft and smooth. Ironically, if I am frustrated about how my chappatis are turning out, their quality just goes downhill from there.

For the benefit of the naive beginners and the entertainment of the (self-proclaimed) chappati experts, allow me to explain the nuances of the fine art of chappati-making. It is hoped that in spite of some not-so-subtle sarcastic (frustrated) statements, this will be considered a useful guide.

The chappati making process has 4 main steps:

Kneading the dough
Making small balls of the dough
Rolling out chappatis
Roasting the chappatis

It is difficult to judge which one of the above steps is the most idiot proof, because like I mentioned, I have goofed up every step of the way, and still discovering new goofs and mutations of old ones.

Step 1: Kneading the dough

This process is a little messy. Beginners, please remember to clip your nails and wash hands with soap and water! Use a nice broad mouthed vessel for this process, one that would have room for various violent arm movements.

Start with some atta (wheat flour) in the vessel, and add salt to it.

Then add 1 teaspoon of oil and rub into the mixture.

Now gradually add water, rub into the mixture. Continue adding water until the mixture looks like dry scrambled eggs.

Now sprinkle about a fistful (?) of water and combine into a single dough structure.

Knead and knead, till your knuckles give out, and your carpal tunneled wrists are permanently hanging at right angles to your arm.

Wash hands and cover and keep dough aside for at least 10 minutes.

Tips on kneading dough

Start making the dough when you are frustrated. Imagine the dough as the object of your frustration and vent it out. Start at the end of the long school/ workday for the ideal frustration level.

Salt is an important and easy-to-forget ingredient!

Keep in mind, the physics theories of relativity and the uncertainty principle.

Why? If you made nearly perfect dough today, measured the amount of ingredients with astronomical precision and the next day mixed up the exact astronomical amount to make the dough, the result will almost always never be perfect. According to my research, this is due to the fact that your experiments can be affected by the plethora of factors, your sense of measurement, instruments used, number of experimental trials, temperature, humidity, sweat level of the palms, magnitude and direction of the force vectors applied to the dough, quality of the mill that ground the flour, entropy of the atmosphere, pollen count etc., to name a few. In the big picture, all this boils down to the following factors: the speed of light, the speed of kneading relative to the speed of light, the orientation of the earth, its rotational speed and the resulting centripetal force and the gravitational pull of other celestial objects to name a few of them. That is how physics becomes involved. As you will soon realize, it is difficult for an uninformed mind to keep all these factors in mind. For a more detailed guide for this step, please refer to another guide that will be written after the completion of research: “No Two Dough Balls Are The Same – Why?”

Rare second chance opportunity, If dough turns out too dry/hard, try adding water and knead extra hard to incorporate in the dough.

If dough turns out too soft/sticky, You have messed up. You can try adding more dry flour and knead till you pass out, but I doubt if the situation is recoverable.

A word of confidence: Whatever the end doughy result is, try to continue with the following steps, because after all, you can always eat thick, ugly chappatis.

Step 2: Making balls from the dough

1. Break the dough into 'ping-pong size' balls, smooth, no cracks or gradations on the surface. Opinions vary among the chappati gurus, some say 'marble sized', some say 'lemon sized' and some others say 'small melon' sized. My short stint of experience seems to suggest that 1.45” would be more or less the precise diameter.

This sounds a little too easy but believe you me, if you mess up here this could jeopardize the next steps.

Step 3: Rolling out chappatis

Keep dry flour handy for dusting purposes (a little more if your dough is on the sticky side)

Take each ball from the previous step, flatten on the rolling board, apply flour and roll with the rolling pin. In the beginning, the rolling process would seem more like flattening. But this is a delicate process; one has got to respect the chappati.

Roll out into rounds of about 6-7 inches in diameter. And that's it!

Tips, Tricks and Strategies for rolling

You have to talk to the chappati, sometimes curse at it. Show who the boss is. At the same time, be gentle. Just like teaching a kid how to tie his/her shoelaces (except for the cursing part).

The trick is to roll such that the chappati rotates with your motions, so that it is even throughout.

A neat little trick that my mom once taught me: Once the chappatis are about 1 inch in diameter, roll with even pressure (not measurements again), trying to roll out the edges to prevent overworking the center.

If you worry too much about the shape, it will never come out round.

Remember that you cannot get the round shape by tricky rolling pin movements in the end. That is why step 2 is so important; you have to make the balls such that if you flatten it, it is a perfect round. Now rotate it and roll evenly to try and maintain that as far as possible.

Step 4: Roasting the chappati

Preheat the tawa/griddle.

Wait till small bubbles are formed and the surface facing the tawa has small brown spots.

Use a paper towel or clean kitchen cloth and apply pressure on the chappati to cook it from within.

Remove and apply ghee to the surface that has just left the tawa. As a wise man once said, “It is very important to realize that in the real world, everything has a right side and a wrong side.” Truer words have never been spoken.

If you followed all the above steps 100% correctly, there is about 50% probability that the chappati will puff up nicely. Tips and Tricks for roasting

Keep your eyes peeled at the chappatis; they love to burn.

When in doubt, turn the chappati over to check for doneness. If it is not done, flip it back. Defense is the best strategy you can use here.

Keep the flame on 'high' while cooking the chappatis. This is supposed to prevent them from becoming hard on cooling.

Now that the process is outlined, do you feel you are up to it yet? Here is the final twister that adds slight complications – multiplexing.

Yes, you are expected to perform the rolling, toasting and greasing processes in a parallel, pipelined fashion for optimum time and fuel efficiency. By the time you lovingly roll out the chappati at hand into a semi-circle with Australia on top, the one on the tawa has turned to coal and the ones piled up waiting to be greased have turned to stone.

As with most things in life, one should start with this adventure simple and add the multiplexing to give themselves a challenge along the way. Unfortunately, such people are considered lowly novices among the chappati elites.

I can almost see those chappati experts rolling their eyes saying, well, Rome wasn't built in a day! My answer to them would be, of course that makes sense, Romans were so preoccupied with making pizza dough that they procrastinated building Rome!

They say perseverance pays and practice makes perfect (or nearly perfect in this case). In the meantime, misery loves company, so I am sharing my whines and complaints. Then again, a new day will come and I will go through the process once more, and maybe one day I will be close to getting better at it. Remember, he who says he is perfect, lies. She, who says she is perfect, usually lies.