The diversity of Indian flatbreads is remarkable. From Kashmir to Kerala, every region swears by its own recipes and preparation methods.
Spicy curries and hot chutneys are the trademarks of Indian cooking. Scarcely any other nation knows how to use chili, ginger, garlic, cumin or turmeric as creatively as the Indians. And every cook is aware that foods with a strong flavor need a mild accompaniment to balance them. So, in Indian homes and restaurants, flatbread is served with every curry along with rice. It is this triad that creates the ultimate culinary kick.
The special features of regional cooking also influence the bread culture. Flatbread has endless variants: made from wholemeal (atta) or superfine white flour (maida); fermented or unfermented; leavened with yeast, baking powder or bicarbonate of soda; baked in a tandoor or tawa pan or deep-fried in a karahi (similar to a wok shape); filled, rolled or folded. Each of the 28 states has its own specialities.
Some recipes require the use of millet, rice, bean or lentil flour, but mostly wheat flour is used. In southern India, white superfine flour generally is used (called “maida” or “all-purpose” flour), whereas consumers in northern regions like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh prefer the more savory note of atta, a wholemeal flour traditionally ground in stone “chakki” mills.
The universal classic bread types are chapatti and naan. The recipes and baking style differ from one bread type to the other. Flour, salt and water are used to make Chapatti dough and it is baked in a heavy iron pan. On the other hand, the more nutritious naan, which may also contain yogurt and clarified butter (ghee) along with the basic ingredients, is baked in a scorching-hot clay or masonry tandoor.
Besides these two standard breads, there is a wide variety of regional specialities of a highly individual nature.
Bread from a wok
In the Delhi region, for example, it is impossible to overlook bhatura or bhatoora. Countless roadside stalls supply the nearly 30 million inhabitants of this northern metropolis with deep-fried, balloon-shaped flatbread that is a popular choice for breakfast together with chole bhature, a pungent chickpea curry.
For many businesspeople, rickshaw drivers or students, it is part of their morning ritual to stop at their favorite stall and watch a thin, round layer of dough being transformed into a voluminous edible balloon.
The experienced roadside cooks know exactly what this conjuring trick requires. First, the dough — usually made from all-purpose flour, semolina, yogurt, ghee, sugar, salt, yeast and/or baking powder — must have a highly elastic, extensible structure. Secondly, every step in frying the dough must be just right. With great dexterity, the dough artists slide the thin, round bread slices about 7 centimeters in diameter into a wok pan and constantly dip them into boiling hot fat with a spatula.
Because of the extremely high temperatures, steam develops in the dough within seconds. The crumb separates, creating a ball-shaped product with a large inner cavity and a crisp crust. Unlike flatbreads baked in an oven or pan, the inflated shape of the deep-fried bread remains largely intact even after cooling.
In the southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, consumers prefer layered flatbread: parathas (parotta, parontay, porotta, or paratha). The latter is a rich delicacy that looks and tastes like a mixture of flatbread, pancake and puff pastry.
First, a basic dough is prepared from maida flour, water, salt, oil, clarified butter (ghee) and sometimes sugar, egg and milk and divided into little balls weighing about 70 grams after the rest period. The secret of paratha preparation lies in the subsequent shaping and layering of the dough with fat (oil, ghee, butter). As with an apple strudel, the dough is rolled out very thinly and then book-folded. To do this, the sheet of dough is pleated from the sides several times or stacked in layers in the middle until an oblong strand of dough comes about that looks like a closed fan. This fragile shape is knotted into a rosette, flattened, and then baked in a cast iron pan.
Fat ensures a tender delicacy
The most important aid to paratha production is fat. It is the repeated spreading of the dough with ghee, butter or oil that enables separate layers to form that do not stick together. Adding the right amount of fat takes a great deal of care and instinct. The objective is to bake parathas that are neither too dry nor too rich and melt into tender flakes in the mouth. Besides the taste, the appearance is important, too: perfect parathas show irregular browning on both sides and clearly visible layer formation.
Fluctuating flour qualities
In order to meet the challenging expectations of consumers of Paratha, Bhatura & Co., bakers and cooks need suitable flour qualities.
Indian mills produce their flour mainly from domestic wheat varieties. The country has an ample supply after a record crop of 102 million tonnes of wheat was harvested in 2018-19.
However, the varieties grown have greatly differing processing properties. Since the structure of Indian agriculture is characterized by small farms, the quality of the crop often depends on access to fertilizers, seed, machinery and irrigation systems. The soil structure and climatic conditions in the different regions also are reflected in the quality grade. According to surveys by the “Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research” in Karnal/Haryana, it is primarily the wheat from the western and central Indian states like Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat that has the right baking properties for flatbread production. Wheat from the northern regions like Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand tends to be more suitable for the production of fried savories.
But practically all varieties and growing areas have one thing in common: the low enzyme content. From the baking point of view, an alpha-amylase value of 300 to 380 s, for example, would be ideal. However, the Falling Numbers of Indian wheat flour are often over 500 s.
Upgrade for flatbread flours
For standardizing flour quality and adjusting it to flatbread production, Indian millers increasingly are coming to appreciate the benefits of individualized, enzyme-based flour treatment. Taking the provisions of the FSSAI (Food Safety Standard Act of India) into account, the mills can choose from a diversity of innovative enzyme compounds to improve the extensibility, stability, elasticity or water absorption capacity of their flours. The exceptional functionality of these finely adjusted flours helps both downstream processors and consumers. Bakeries benefit from better processability and machinability of the doughs, consumers from higher product quality and a longer shelf life of the bread.
The following examples show how problems often encountered in flatbread production can be solved with additives and enzymes:
Problem: The flatbreads do not have the desired round shape. The dough springs back or shrinks and does not keep its shape.
Possible cause: High protein content of the flour; gluten quality too strong.
Solution: Promote relaxation of the dough with cysteine, e.g. EMCEsoft P10. The addition of Alphamalt HC 30456 also reduces shrinkage of the doughs.
Problem: Preventing cracking of the dough during working.
Possible cause: Gluten properties are not optimal.
Solution: Promote relaxation of the dough with Alphamalt Pro.
Problem: Dough dries too quickly; inadequate browning.
Possible cause: Enzymatic activity of the flour too low; amylase deficiency.
Solution: Add amylase, e.g. Alphamalt VC 5000 or Alphamalt GA 5071 to promote the Maillard reaction and browning.
Problem: Impairment of freshness characteristics during storage; firm, inelastic crumb; dry and crumbly.
Possible Cause: Rapid retrogradation of the starch.
Solution: Add emulsifiers like GMS 90, SSL or CSL. Enzymatic treatment with alpha-amylases or maltogenic amylases such as Alphamalt Fresh should be used to prolong softness.