Beyond Naan: A Peek Into the World of Roti and Other Indian Breads

June 5, 2019 Updated: June 7, 2019

The first thing that someone will tell me when they find out I am from India is how much they love curry, and how much they love naan. Their use of these two words tells me that they likely have not ventured past their neighborhood Indian food place in a nearby strip mall.

I guide them quickly through the cuisine’s different kinds of breads, other than naan, as well as entrees—and very few are called “curry.” I try to share how authentic Indian food is much more than what is available in restaurants, hoping to also convey that it is not that difficult to make, and they should try it at home. Naan feels familiar, is reminiscent of pita, but isn’t eating and appreciating a new cuisine all about trying something different and new?

A World of Roti

In the first cooking class I ever offered, I taught students how to make three kinds of Indian breads—fulka roti, paratha, and stuffed paratha—but not naan. Everyone loved learning about the varied flavors and methods, even though we had just scratched the surface!

A few years ago, I collected my recipes for all versions of roti and other bread-like accompaniments to an Indian meal. It occurred to me that any household that cooks Indian food often easily has a repertoire of at least one or two dozen kinds of Indian rotis, pooris, bhakris, and dosas.

Roti is a simpler nickname for any unleavened, griddle-cooked, bread-like preparation, typically eaten with an entrée, dip, chutney, daal, or other accompaniment. Types of roti vary based on the flour used, whether it starts as a dough or batter, and the final cooking technique.

There are many varieties of roti because many people in India rely on a plant-based diet, and therefore grow many traditional grains. Although whole wheat is most commonly available, grains such as rice, buckwheat, sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, finger millet, and corn are also milled into flour to make rustic, gluten-free bhakri. Legumes such as chickpeas, black lentils, and mung beans are also used in making pancake- and crepe-like preparations, such as dosas and malpua.

Varied preparation methods create even more types of breads: They can start as dough or batter, be rolled or prepared in one of many ways, and be cooked in many ways as well. A basic unleavened, whole-wheat dough can be cooked on the griddle to make roti or chapati, on the flame to make rotli, or in the oven for tandoori roti. Parathas are cooked on the griddle with ghee or oil, and may be plain or laminated, may start with seasoned dough, or may be stuffed. Some parathas may apply all these combinations of processes.

In the modern kitchen, roti continue to remain popular because they work with various skills and can adapt to various diets.

roti with side dishes
Roti is typically eaten with an entrée, dip, chutney, daal, or other accompaniment—but separate from rice. (Shutterstock)

The Bread of Life

Roti and its many versions are made every day in every household across India. Roti with milk or tea is a classic poor man’s breakfast, and the phrase “daal-roti” refers to a basic meal, or a necessity.

Roti also carries frequent symbolism. The similarities between life and the making of a roti are seamlessly woven into casual conversations. For instance, an expression in Hindi about “rolling far too many rotis” is a metaphor for the hard work involved in making a living; meanwhile, “breaking roti” is much like sharing a meal to encourage a friendship.

Making a perfect roti has long been considered a rite of passage for young girls in India. Perfecting the art of cooking a roti indicated mastering domesticity and that the young lady was primed and ready to embark on the next chapter: a blissful and happy married life. Ironically, once married, a wife brandishing a rolling pin, the tool used for making roti, meant trouble for the spouse!

My introduction to making roti happened when I was very young, perhaps at the age of 5 or 6 years old. I would often ask my mother for a small ball of dough to make roti on my wooden cooking play set, and ask her to cook the diskettes so I could feed them to the birds.

One afternoon, I decided to cook the diskettes myself. I used real matchsticks to make a miniature fire under the griddle of my play set, and inadvertently set everything ablaze. All this, for an attempt to cook my roti! To pacify my sadness at the dual disaster of not only losing a pretty cooking play set, but also having nothing to feed the birds, my mother let me tear up a freshly made roti into tiny pieces and leave them on the windowsill instead.

Since those carefree days of playing in and around the kitchen decades ago, I have made my fair share of rotis and fed many birds. I also spent many years being schooled by my perfectionist mother on making the perfect fulka roti (a puffed, flame-cooked whole wheat roti), and also learning its many varieties—more versions to cook, love, and eat!

I find that making rotis and other Indian breads from scratch can be meditative. The process is simple and repetitive, and engages all the senses: feeling the texture of the flour and experiencing its transformation into dough on one’s fingertips, watching the colors change on a sheet of dough as it cooks, enjoying the sweet aroma when it’s freshly made, and relishing the delicious reward at the end.

I collected my recipes in a book, hoping to preserve techniques learned from my mother to pass down to my family—if they ever want to cook for me! I can only hope that others expand their Indian cooking repertoires past naan, into the vast variety of home-cooked, made-from-scratch Indian dishes. Some are easier than others, but all are delicious.

Chapati, Fulka Roti, or Rotli

fulka roti or chapati puffed up over a flame
Fulka roti, puffed up over a flame. (Shutterstock)

Called by many names, this is an essential piece of a simple, everyday Indian meal. The names chapati, roti, and rotli are regional references to the same kind of bread. The term “fulka” is an adjective that reflects its fluffy nature, a result of direct flame cooking. When cooked only on a griddle instead, the resulting bread is called a roti or chapati. The term “rotli” is specifically used in Gujarat to emphasize the smaller and delicate nature of this bread. The rolling technique, perfected using a very light hand, makes these a rewarding preparation.

Makes eight 2-piece servings

Cook Time: 30 minutes

  • 3 cups atta (stone-ground durum whole wheat flour), sifted, plus extra for dredging
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 1/2 cup or more water, for binding
  • 1/2 teaspoon oil
  • 2–5 tablespoons ghee, for basting

To bind: Using a food processor fitted with an S-blade, or in a large bowl, combine the flour with salt and enough water to make a firm dough. The dough should be firm but not hard, moist but not wet, and similar in consistency to modeling clay. Carefully knead the oil into the dough and cover with a clear wrap or lid until ready to roll. Divide the dough into golf ball-sized pieces. Using the palms of your hands, roll each piece into a smooth ball and lightly flatten to make 1-inch diskettes. Keep these covered to avoid drying.

To roll: Dredge only the diskette you are going to roll in the dry flour. Using a tapered rolling pin, gently roll out the dough using the pressure of your hands to make it move slightly and spin. Using light pressure on the pin and moving the rolling pin along a small circular path as you roll back and forth will help the dough spin. Roll outwards but not over the edge. Routinely dust with dry flour as needed to avoid stickiness. Lightly dust off the finished, uncooked rotli. Each uncooked rotli should be the thickness of an uncooked lasagna sheet, or slightly thinner.

To cook directly on a gas flame: Heat a griddle or shallow nonstick pan on medium-high heat. When ready to place a rotli in the pan, turn it down to medium heat. The side that hits the pan first is the first side. Watch for the dough to bubble slightly and move it around in the pan to avoid hotspots. Turn the rotli over approximately a minute later. Increase the heat to medium high. The first side should be lightly spotted but not have dark spots. Repeat on the second side. Using a pair of tongs, directly transfer the partially cooked rotli, first side down, directly onto the flame of the burner. The rotli will begin to puff up. Pick it up with the tongs, flip it and set it down again, turning as you go. Do this on each side at least once. Remove from flame and pat down to help dissipate the steam. Lightly baste with ghee. Once they have come to room temperature, the rotlis can be transferred to an appropriate storage container.

To cook only on a griddle (suitable for both gas and electric stoves): Heat a griddle or shallow nonstick pan on medium-high heat. When ready to place a rotli in the pan, turn it down to medium-low heat. The side that hits the pan first is the first side. Watch for the uncooked rotli to bubble up slightly and move it around in the pan without flipping it over to avoid hotspots. Turn the rotli over approximately a minute later. Increase the heat to medium. The first side should be lightly spotted but not have dark spots. Repeat on the second side. Now flip the rotli over back to the first side Use a dry kitchen towel wad to very gently push the bubbles down and around on the griddle. This light pressure will move the trapped air between the two sides of dough. The rotli may puff up just a little. Flip after one minute, and repeat the same on the second side. Each side should be cooked once without being pushed down, and once while being pushed down. Use a pair of tongs to transfer it from the griddle to your container. Pat down to help dissipate any steam. Lightly baste with ghee. Once they have come to room temperature, the finished rotli can be transferred to an appropriate storage container.

Recipe reprinted with permission from “Roti: 40 Classic Indian Breads and Sides” by Nandita Godbole. Copyright 2019 by Nandita Godbole.

Nandita Godbole is an India-born, Atlanta-based food writer and author. She hopes to simplify Indian cuisine to make it accessible and enjoyable for food lovers everywhere.