Project: Chapati

You may be wondering what an infinity pool has to do with a stack of chapati. Sometimes one needs a bit of an incentive to start on a cooking project and to be invited to the coutryside for a long weekend is one such incentive. Eddie and I are pretending that we have gone on our first holiday since the lock-down. We are visiting our good friends Thilo and Oi Wah in Janda Baik, about an hour’s drive outside of KL. We are staying for three days, so there is plenty of time to cook, chat, swim and laze about. It really is like a holiday coming up the hill. The infinity pool and the detached guest pavilion makes you feel like you’ve arrived in Bali. The weather was playing along too, with a cool breeze throughout most of the day, bright sunshine and the odd dramatic thunderstorm.

Oi Wah has tandooried an entire boneless leg of lamb for our first dinner and is going to grill it on charcoal, which will be delicious. I can confirm that it will be, because the future has already happened and so I know it was.

My helper for the day.

My task in all of this is to produce edible chapati but I have to confess that apart from rolling and roasting them in Kerala, I’ve never made a chapati in my life. Fortunately there is YouTube with all its tutorials and information, so I’m cautiously confident. The first challenge is choosing the four to use. I forgot to buy Atta flour, which is of course the correct flour to use, so I’m left with a choice of High Protein, Italian “00”, Japanese Cake Flour and Organic Wholemeal. As Atta flour is basically Indian Wholemeal (I’m not sure why I’m capitalising this, must be the German in me), my vote goes to Organic Wholemeal. Oi Wah thinks we should be using wholemeal and plain half and half, but I choose to ignore her. Let’s see how that pans out.

There’s not much to chapati making, which makes me think that it’s not easy at all. Whenever the list of ingredients and the instructions are small and basic, it usually means that there are a lot of techniques you need to know to get to a reasonable result and I, of course, have no chapati making techniques. To make chapati, you don’t need a recipe, just an ingredient list:

  • atta flour (Indian wholemeal flour) or half wholemeal, half plain flour
  • salt
  • ghee
  • warm water

For the 250g flour that we used, I added 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon ghee. If you can’t find ghee, just melt a bit of butter and once you see a bit of white foam at the top, scoop it aside and spoon one tablespoon of the clear fat underneath it into your flour. Then add a small pinch of sugar to the flour mix.

Okay, let me explain this one. Butter consists of fat, water and milk solids and Ghee is clarified butter. It is usually slightly sweeter than our Western clarified butter, hence my recommendation of a pinch of sugar. Butter is clarified by melting the butter without boiling, skimming the white solids off the top, leaving the melted butter to rest 5 minutes, then pouring the clarified butter off, leaving the watery white stuff at the bottom of the pot. Alternatively, you can just add a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Much easier!

The Flour

My chapati worked out alright, but I think it could have been lighter. The reason is the organic wholemeal flour I used. It is much heavier than Atta flour, so it makes a denser, less fluffy bread, chapati being bread. So I’d recommend a mix of half wholemeal and half plain flour. Someone told me she told me so.

The Dough

250g of flour should give you about 10-12 chapati, depending on the size you make them. Add the salt and ghee or oil and start pouring in the warm water, little by little. Use you fingers to massage the water into the flour. Technique is important (told you it would be). Use your fingertips to “crumb” the dough, adding water handful by handful until your dough comes together. You will know when that happens, because your fingers will have dough sticking to them all through the process and when they suddenly become cleaner and the dough comes off your fingers and mostly (mostly, never entirely, okay!) sticks to the ball of dough, you’re done. Knead the dough just very quickly, cover it with cling film and leave it to rest for an hour.

The Roasting

Of course I shouldn’t post a picture of this Tawa with a perfectly puffed chapati, as it makes mine look quite sad.

Or maybe I should say the frying or griddling. The best thing to use is one of those flat roti griddles, which if I’m not mistaken is called a Tawa. But you can use a normal frying pan, as long as it’s not a non-stick pan, because you would kill that one. We don’t use oil to fry the chapati, so the non-stick will overheat and the coating will start to come off. If you have a cast iron griddle, even if it’s not flat, you can use that, otherwise a simple stainless steel pan will do just fine.

Pinch off a small ball of dough, about an inch in diameter, dust it with plain flour and flatten it into a disk, then roll it out as round as you can, which means not all that round in my case. If it starts to stick to your rolling pin, give it another dusting with plain flour.

Here’s my first chapati – not very good. Of course it isn’t really round, but that’s not the major problem. Chapatis (or is it one chapati, two chapati?) are supposed to puff up into a neat pillow and this is more like little puffs. The reason is that the dough is too thick, so without changing anything, I just rolled it thinner and that solved the problem. You will notice that the chapati only really puffs up at the second or third flipping. Here’s what I found; your pan or griddle needs to be really hot. When you first put the chapati on the pan, leave it there until you can see lighter parts appearing on the surface, then give it its first flip.

You may have to waste one or two chapati, as you adjust the heat to get it nicely brown without burning any parts. I for one don’t mind a few burnt bubbles, as long as they are not carbonised. Once your chapati is cooked, put it wrapped in a tea towel on a plate. Add the rest of the chapati to the pile and keep it covered with the cloth. The steam from the hot bread will soften and that’s what you want. Chapati are not crispy, they should be soft and fluffy.

Now I’m just going to have to make the dahl and the fish curry and have chapati for my breakfast at home. The chapati worked just as tandoori lamb and the labneh we had for our dinner. Time to ring the dinner gong and crack open that splendid bottle Thilo has brought up from the cellar.

The Apology

Please remember that I’m a white guy trying to make chapati and not your Indian auntie whipping them up as she has done all her life, so be kind. My research, as limited as it was, showed the addition of baking powder (not for me, thank you), a brushing of oil over the chapati when it’s finished, and many many more variations. I did stick to YouTube contributors whose language I couldn’t understand, so I’m assuming they all knew what they were talking about. If you have tips that will make my chapati better, please let me know, my learning has only just started.

If you want to know what a really good chapati tastes like before you start on your own trials, go to Santa Chapati on Jln Tun H.S. Lee. It’s one of our regular and all time favourite breakfast joints. It may not be much to look at, but the food is great and the chapati some of the best a little money can buy.

Wins has long since moved, so don’t look at that to guide you.

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