One of the classic dishes of Kerala is the rather surprising Malabar or Kerala parotta. I say “surprising” because Kerala’s cuisine is very rice-centric – even the roti-like pathiri is made of rice flour – whereas the parotta, found all over the state on street corners and in restaurants, is made of maida, or refined wheat flour. A relatively recent addition to the cuisine of the state (most likely in the 20th century), its origins remain hazy.
Parotta is similar to the lacchha paratha in that the main feature of both flatbreads is the layers – the more numerous and distinct the layers, the better. But parotta, being made exclusively of maida, is soft and chewy, whereas lacchha paratha is a lot crisper. Lacchha paratha also uses far less oil and usually involves less labour, since the dough isn’t rested for as long as in parotta. The method for making lacchha paratha is more straight-forward – a portion of dough is rolled out flat and is then rolled into a rope that is coiled to make a disc. This disc is then rolled into the circular paratha shape and cooked.
While parotta is also often made in the way described above, there is another, far more elaborate technique that is used in order to get more and thinner layers. This is the technique – similar to the one used in the Moroccan flatbread known as Malwi Maghrebi – I’ve described in today’s post and I have to make it clear right at the outset that it’s not easy at all. It took me two to three tries before I finally got it right. But the effort is worth it, I believe.
Before proceeding, I should point out that parotta uses a lot of oil (or ghee, if that is your preference). The dough has to be greased at different stages so that it doesn’t stick or lose moisture and when it’s cooked on the tawa, you need to add some more oil/ghee. So it’s best made for a special, indulgent meal, possibly when you’re entertaining.
Also, you might be tempted to add oil/ghee while making the dough, but please don’t. I know a lot of recipes call for it, apparently because it makes the dough softer, but it won’t work. Fat is known to inhibit the development of gluten and to get parotta’s soft, chewy texture, the gluten in the dough needs to be well-developed. What will ensure this is lots of kneading (as described in the ‘method’ section of the recipe), not oil or ghee.
Maida – 2 cups
Salt – 1 tsp
Sugar – 1 tsp
Water – 1½ cups
Oil/ghee – as needed
Mix the maida with the salt and sugar in a mixing bowl, and bit by bit, add water till you have a shaggy, sticky flour. It shouldn’t be too watery, so as soon as it starts looking like it does in the first picture, stop adding water.
Take this shaggy dough and knead it for 15 minutes on a lightly-floured surface, till it is soft and smooth, like in the picture.
The length of time for which you work the dough and how you work it are both very important. To knead it properly, push the dough down firmly with the heel of your hand, then pull it back into itself. Keep this up for 15 minutes, because you need the gluten – which is what makes the dough so elastic and chewy – to develop well.
When it’s done, dab some oil or ghee onto the dough, cover it with a clean, damp cloth and let it rest for an hour.
Once rested, pull off fists full of the dough and roll them into balls. Apply a dab of oil or ghee on each, coat completely and then set aside, covered in a clean, damp cloth, to rest for another hour.
After an hour, place a ball of dough on a clean, lightly greased surface and start rolling it out as big and thin as you can, taking care to avoid tears. The gluten will have developed nicely by now, so the dough will stretch a lot. You can use either a rolling pin, as long as you’re not putting too much pressure on it, or your hands. Don’t worry about what shape the sheet of dough is taking.
Then, use a knife or pastry wheel (without crimps) to cut the sheet into long strips, all the way from top to bottom.
Then, gently start prising the dough off the surface from both sides and keep pushing towards the centre of the sheet, as shown in picture.
You will have a long, stretchy rope of dough.
Coil this rope into a spiral shape, as shown in the picture, tucking the tail into the centre of spiral, on the underside.
On a clean surface, lightly dusted with some maida, gently roll out the parotta. Don’t make it too thin.
Heat a tawa on a high flame and just before it starts smoking, place the parotta on it and apply some oil or ghee. Cook till bubbles start to form (this should be less than a minute).
Flip the parotta, apply some more oil or ghee and, in about 15 seconds, flip again.
After this, keep flipping the parotta every 3 seconds, till it’s cooked on both sides.
Squish each parotta, bringing together both hands in a clapping motion, to separate the layers. Make sure the parottas are warm, because as they cool, the layers become harder to separate. But take care to not squish them when they’re too hot, or the escaping steam could seriously burn your hands.
Serve warm and fresh, ideally with a Kerala-style preparation like erachi ularthiyathu (beef fry) or kozhi ishtoo (chicken stew). It also goes very well with meen (fish) curry, mutta (egg) roast and vegetarian dishes like kadala (black chickpea) curry and Kerala-style vegetable kurma.
[The Back Burner is a weekly blog that will talk about all things food (with recipes, of course)]
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