Chapatti Passion and the Gift of Mother’s Day

Chapatti Passion and the Gift of Mother’s Day

The culinary force that has bound together families across the subcontinent for generations has not travelled well with the diaspora. The effort, the skill, and the inclination are missing, and I fear the home made western chapatti is in terminal decline.

Chapattis are messy. Although they are no more than flour and water, perhaps with the barest pinch of salt, rolling them out makes a mess. Flour goes everywhere.

In India, where I had the privilege of eating the best chapattis ever made (by my aunt), the messiness is not a problem. The excess flour is swept out on stone floors. The cooker was a wood stove, the pan an upturned dome (allows the broad thin disc of dough to spread and become thinner). They are perfect while they are still hot enough to burn your fingers. The magic goes as they cool.

In a western kitchen, however crisp and spartan it may be, there are edges and splash-backs where the flour will catch. As the dough is cooked and toasted on a hot pan there is a lot of smoke. In a closed kitchen, even with the best extractor fan, some of it will settle. It does not matter in an open courtyard, but it matters here. More time is spent cleaning up than is spent making the chapattis.

And there’s the rub. Chapattis are more than anything a question of time and effort. Kneading, rolling, flipping, and then cleaning up. As we get busier and look for speed and convenience the art is being devalued.

My mum has asbestos fingers. She can pick and flip chapattis off the pan without any implements, and I was born with a burn proof mouth: I can pluck the topmost hottest one from the pile, and juggle it between bone melting bites. My mum misses me on the days she makes chapattis and I am not there. She frequently sends them wrapped in foil, ostensibly for the kids, but knowing I will exact a toll on the package. On mother’s day, the first after her heart operation, we descended on her, and she wielded the rolling pin with joy as I and all the grandkids clamoured for more. It is the perfect symbiotic relationship, she loves to feed, we love to be fed; repeated no doubt across a billion families around the globe.

Mum was absurdly pleased when all four grandchildren were overheard saying how much they loved chappatis, and number three chimed in with “especially when Dadi makes them by hand.” Sweet innocent child. as if there was any other way. Ready made chapattis are evil.

That was my mother’s day gift to mum; we relaxed the restrictions on her activities and allowed her to get the rolling pin out. She couldn’t have been happier.

There is an art and an ecstasy to eating chapattis, separate to any other food stuff. They have to be just cooked. The half life to decaying into mere higher quality bread is minutes (although even dry and days old they outclass the alternatives). At the moment of perfection there is a choice to be made. Eat them as they are, still steaming and you know pleasure like no other in this world. Land one on a plate and smear it with butter, losing vital seconds of heat, and you will be paid back by entering paradise. But the paradise of houris and grapes and shady trees is a veil, a trap for those whose interest was their own soul. Those who wish to achieve true proximity to the divine tear down this veil, and add a little more butter, so the last mouthful of the chapatti glistens with heavy drops of gold. Behind the veil is God: a matron at a stove, with a hot pan rolling balls of dough.

The hot chapatti also raises every other meal to gourmet status. Even a committed carnivore like me will happily dive into a bowl of daal when armed with torn pieces of chapatti to use as scoops. Shami kebabs, the mix of mince and lentils, with a burnt crust on the outside, fiery with green chillies inside and washed down with tea are the perfect all day, anytime meal: dry heat, chilli heat, liquid heat. Korma, that king of dishes, ascends beyond royalty to the throne of Solomon.

You’ll have noticed I have not mentioned the other two members of the flatbread trinity – puris have been condemned utterly by the campaign against saturated fats, and parathas have been abandoned by association. I am alas left in the one dimension of monotheism: the chapatti.

There was a moment that dislocated me in time on Mother’s Day. My nephew pressed his rolled chapatti with butter against his chest because it was too hot to hold in his hand, and yet was unwilling to relinquish it, and then bit into it with a huge grin on his face. That grin is the key, which means my sister in law has learned from my mother, and the art will live on at least another generation.

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