The Karnataka bench of the Authority for Advance Rulings (AAR) has said that packaged “parotas” would attract a GST of 18 per cent because, unlike plain rotis and khakhras (5 per cent GST), they need to be heated before consumption.
Social media has been in uproar over the ruling, with the hashtag #HandsOffPorotta trending on Friday evening, and many alleging that the ruling was yet another instance of the government imposing itself on the beloved foods of the South.
But why did this alleged discrimination against the porotta — more commonly spelled ‘parotta’ — trigger such outrage? What exactly is a parotta anyway?
Archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal underlines that the parotta of South India is not the same as the paratha of the North.
“Generically, they are the same thing in that the dough is allowed to briefly self-leaven by resting and fat is added to the dough before it’s rolled out in order to create the layers. But the North Indian paratha is made of whole wheat, while the Kerala parotta is made of maida.
“Another difference is that with most parathas, you roll and fold the dough to get the layers, whereas the parotta belongs to a sub-type in which the dough is rolled into a ball and then into a long rope, which is coiled and then rolled out again.
“Its physical properties then become very different from the regular North Indian paratha. It’s more like the lachchha paratha,” he says.
The word parotta is generally used for the Malabar or Kerala parotta, the flaky, layered bread made of refined wheat flour or maida. It is a popular street and restaurant food across the state, and is usually served with beef fry (egg curry and chicken curry are other popular accompaniments). In fact, the parotta-beef fry combination carries political meaning in Kerala, and is frequently used as the symbol of a state that prizes the cosmopolitan origins of its modern culinary culture.
How parotta came to exist and become so popular in a state where rice is the ubiquitous staple is unclear. Did it travel to the South from the North, or did it arrive on the Malabar coast independently?
Dalal speculates that the latter is more likely.
“That style of layering is not indigenous to India. I believe that it came from West Asia, and you see West Asian contact with Kerala from a very early period, even before the arrival of Islam,” he says.
However, he adds, it remains difficult to assert definitively how the parotta came to exist on the Malabar coast, given the paucity of sources on the subject.
While the Malabar parotta is the best-known of its kind, other varieties are popular street snacks as well, especially in Tamil Nadu.
One such is the parotta salna, which is basically parotta that is served with a plain, tomato-based gravy on the side.
There is also the kothu parotta, which is shredded parotta mixed and served with a masala (gravy) that includes egg or meat. It is believed to have originated in Madurai, although it is now found all over Tamil Nadu. (There is also a Sri Lankan version known there as the kottu parotta.)
Another famous parotta also comes from Madurai and is only found there – the bun parotta, as the name indicates, looks like a bun but is layered and flaky like a parotta should be.
International variations of the parotta include, besides the Sri Lankan kottu parotta, Malaysia’s roti canai and Trinidad’s ‘buss up shut’ – named for the ‘busted-up shirt’ that this soft, crumpled and torn parotta with layers is supposed to resemble.
There is a striking similarity of technique between making the parotta and the Chinese scallion pancake, although in texture the latter is far more crisp.
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According to Anissa Helou in her book ‘Feast: Food of the Islamic World’ (2018), scallion pancakes were originally made by the indigenous Uighur people of China’s Xinjiang province, through which the ancient Silk Route passed. It is highly likely that the scallion pancake is based on layered flatbreads that travelled centuries ago from West Asia to Xinjiang along the Silk Route; just as, Dalal says, they likely travelled from West Asia along ancient sea routes to the Malabar coast and led to the creation of the parotta.