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Food Story: How India’s favourite flatbread Roti was born

No meal in India is complete without this quintessential flatbread. But have you ever wondered when and how this meal essential originate?

Written by Madhulika Dash | New Delhi |
Updated: January 8, 2015 12:53:57 pm
Roti, Chapati, Food Story, Food and Wine Chapati (Source: Wikipedia)

Chapati, phulka, roti – no meal in India is complete without this quintessential flatbread. It’s as much an Indian cuisine table essential as rice. And while North India is known to be particularly fixated about this oldest flatbread, there is no denying that it is one of the easy-to-take-to and yet one of the tricky dishes to make – both shape and softness wise.

But have you ever wondered when and how this meal essential originate? There are several theories about the flatbread’s origin. One says that the roti came from Persia, was thicker and made of maida. Its wheat avatar originated in the state of erstwhile Awadh, where wheat was consumed well, and took a slightly coarse form, which was much akin to the chapati we have today. A probable explanation to this may be that roti for travellers, was like a katori (bowl), which helped you hold the curry while enjoying the meal, thus, negating the need to carry utensils while travelling. The modern day Paasti that is widely eaten in Marwat, Bannu, Waziristan and its surrounding areas with Penda may have some resemblance to the first iteration of rotis.

Another version states that roti travelled all the way from East Africa, where the production of wheat and the making of round flatbreads without any need of fermentation, was evident. This could also be possible because of the trade route. In fact, stories suggest that the unleavened flat bread was a staple food among the Swahili speaking people of Africa.

Yet, citing in various old texts suggest that chapati or roti existed in India in the Harappan Culture as well, where agriculture was a major occupation and people knew how to grow wheat, bajra, millet and vegetables. According to Ramcharitamanas in 1600 century AD written by Tulsidas, roti existed back then as it literally resembled the katori. Moreover, the word roti is similar to a Sanskrit word, rotika mentioned in a medical text Bhavaprakasa, written by Bharata-mishra in the sixteenth-century, which means flat bread to eat curries with. In fact, Vaishnav old text speaks about the Jagannath or Krishna human avatar Madhavendra Puri, who by offering chapatis to Lord Gopala in the 15th century, made it a kitchen essential – more than the kheer and sweet rice.

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Roti, which was made from wheat is also mentioned in Kannada literature between the 10th and 18th centuries. It talks of an unusual method of roasting the flattened dough. Like baking between plates with glowing embers both below and above which is the process of mucchala-roti. The kivichu-roti was roasted on a thava (tawa), which is termed as kavali in Kannada with a little ghee, and eaten with sugar and edible camphor. Chucchu-roti was prepared from palmyra (thale) flowers. There was also the savudu-roti that was baked under cover of a cup and the Uduru-roti, which was made over the cup. These are methods that are still used in making the rotis today.

So what is the real origin of chapati or roti? While Ayurveda dates it back to the Vedic period – where purodhashas, from where the word pataha or parota eventually came, was usually stuffed with dry lentils or vegetables and offered as thick pancakes during yagnas and homas in Indian tradition – there is little mention of the humble chapati. So it wouldn’t be wrong to state that roti or chapati could have been a common man’s/trader’s innovation, which eventually did reach the court because of its lightness and taste of wheat and ghee. In fact, the chapati is noted in Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th-century document by Mughal Emperor, Akbar’s vizier, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak as one of the Great Emperor’s favourite. Because unlike the tandoori roti, the chapati made for an interesting bite even when it went lukewarm. Yes, eating a meal hot was a tradition back then too. In fact, Akbar, who was known to be a frugal eater and often liked to eat alone, had taken such a liking for this ‘thin, roasted flatbread made of wheat, that he would often eat it as a snack with ghee and sugar. A fondness that was later displayed by the last independent Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who was vegetarian and had adopted to the greens because it made him agile and fit. It is said that during his reign, the palm-size chapatis finally became popular. “It was like a spoon and made for a perfect one bite,” a traveller to Aurangzeb’s court had finally noted.

By this time chapatis were a known face at every Indian table, so much so that it became a daily staple with the army and at every club set up by the British. “It complemented the curry so well that chapati and not rice became a favourite combination.” A little known fact is that the phulka – roti roasted on the fire till it blowed up like a puri – was popularised in these army dining rooms, where the British would often prefer it to the ghee-laced chapatis as they felt it was lighter to digest and tastier. How true this story is debatable because around the Independence War of 1857, the Chapati Movement had made the British wary of the dish.

What started as a way to make food reach to those afflicted from cholera in Indore – as chapati if made well could survive the battering of weather and transport – had over the time become a symbol to get people to revolt against the foreign rule.

The story goes that shortly before 1857, when discontented rulers were raising an army against the British quietly, Maulavi Ahmadullah, an eminent name in the list of revolutionaries and person who due to his knowledge of English was sent to infiltrate the British system earlier, in his trip realised the power of the chapati chain. Simply made, unmarked rotis/chapatis were reaching to different homes carried by runners and the person who accepted the offering would quietly make another batch and pass it on. And hence the mastermind of the Indian revolt finally devised a plan where the unleavened bread became the messenger of the freedom struggle.

While there was not a word written or sign made on the chapatis, which made British livid as they couldn’t find grounds of stopping it or arresting the chapati runners as they were adopted by Police Chowkidars, it somehow became the symbol of National Integration. Funnily, a majority of people (commoners) who partook in this activity when later questioned about the role of chapatis and its significance turned absolutely clueless. “They were following some unsaid orders,” said G F Harvey, the then commissioner of Agra, as years later he recounted the incidents of 1857-58.

The Friend of India, an English newspaper, reported in its March 5, 1857 issue that panic spread among British officers when they found that the chapatis had made their way into every police station in the area. Years later, in the book Life During The Indian mutiny, J W Sherar admitted that if the objective behind the strategy was to create an atmosphere of mysterious restlessness, the experiment has been successful.

Perhaps it was the only time when a stack of freshly-made chapatis would put fear into a Briton’s heart. Did it stop its popularity? Not at all. In fact, it is said that chapati, which was slathered with ghee, was a staple when the Army of Tantiya Tope and Lakshmi Bai when they moved around. Kunwar Singh, the doyen of guerilla fighting, too would travel with handful of soldiers and would only stop at hamlets to fill the sack with ghee laced chapattis, gur and water.

Another story of chapatis’ popularity dates back to 1574 when Bikrmi Shri Guru Nanak Dev ji reached Manikaran with his two disciples Bala and Mardana. After days of walking, Mardana began to starve, but with no source to cook meals he had abandoned the idea till Guru Nanak asked him to lift the stone and find hot water spring underneath. He then instructed his disciple to roll out chapatis in the spring. But to Mardana’s despair the chapatis drowned. And then a few minutes later they appeared on the surface, perfectly baked. Since then it is believed that anything you put in the Hot Spring will float. Many believe that this may have been the first puri as well.

Which brings me to the question — Do we really know when did chapatis originate? Well it’s still debatable, but aren’t we glad that it did.

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