Naan, dosa and beyond: A beginner’s guide to Indian breads
When Indian-American chef Floyd Cardoz built out the New York City restaurant space that would eventually become Bombay Bread Bar, he wanted to make use of the wood-burning pizza oven a previous tenant installed. So, he baked some saag paneer pizza, a cornmeal crust topped with sautéed spinach and mustard greens dotted with ricotta-like goat cheese.
The name might sound like a brilliant mashup of two beloved foods, but the flatbread is an actual Indian dish with a Cardoz spin. Sarson ka saag with makki ki roti is a Punjabi preparation of spinach or mustard green curry served with corn-based flatbreads. The “pizza” move is just a handy way to get Americans to order it — and a hint as to how they should eat it.
“I wanted to make [Indian breads] less intimidating,” Cardoz said in a phone interview. You could call that the mission of his decades-long career as a champion of Indian cooking in America. Few chefs and cookbook authors have done more to expose Western audiences to the depth and breadth of Indian cuisines, and at Bombay Bread Bar, Cardoz is going especially deep on bread.
In a nation of 1.3 billion people, there’s no single right way to roll a roti — which is why Cardoz is making puffy charred naan, flaky parathas and, well, saag paneer pizza. “I’ve lived in the U.S. now longer than I’ve lived in India,” Cardoz said. “Immigrant cuisines change as our tastes and environment change. So I’m playing with my cuisine to see what works.”
The best way to appreciate the true vastness and deliciousness of Indian breads is to hop on a cross-country train and stuff your face from Indian city to Indian city. But before you take off on a paratha pilgrimage or head to your local South Asian bakery, study up on the differences between the scores of baked, toasted and fried carbs with this beginner’s guide.
Most Indian breads aren’t baked in an oven; they’re cooked on the stove. And no matter where you go in India, you’ll find some kind of stovetop-cooked, unleavened flatbread called roti.
Roti is more a family of breads than a single recipe, and it’s the most common kind of bread across India. It’s often called chapati, derived from the Hindi and Urdu words for “to slap,” describing the hand-to-hand slapping motion you make as you spread a round of dough into a flat circle before cooking it in a dry skillet. In Punjab, makki ki roti is made with cornmeal, Cardoz said, but most roti is made from atta, a finely milled, whole-grain wheat flour with a mild but distinct toasty flavor.
The flatbread is served as an accompaniment to and a utensil for heavily seasoned curries, vegetable dishes and condiments. Depending on the cook, roti is pancake-thick or paper-thin, ranging in diameter from the width of a palm to a salad plate.
If roti is India’s daily bread, paratha is its special treat. Paratha is made from roti dough that’s pounded especially thin, painted with oil or ghee and then folded or rolled into flaky layers. A great one should flake and crackle like a well-baked croissant, and the layers should be thin, delicate and not too greasy.
With its laminated texture and richer flavor, paratha is more of a standalone food than roti, and is sometimes even stuffed with spiced mashed potato (aloo paratha) or other fillings. At Kababish, a North Indian kebab shack in the Bangladeshi corridor of Jackson Heights, Queens, you can get a personal-pizza-sized keema paratha stuffed with spiced ground chicken.
Paratha also becomes a wrap for kati rolls, burrito-like snacks filled with spiced meat or vegetables and sausages, best eaten on the street while hot from the grill. Goa Taco, a madcap Indian-Mexican mashup with locations in New York and Santa Barbara, California, takes the idea one step further, using paratha as a base for tacos filled with paneer, chile-braised lamb shoulder or chorizo.
Tandoors — hip-high drum-like ovens traditionally heated with charcoal — are mainly a North Indian thing. Which is why naan, the puffy yeasted flatbread best known across the U.S., is mostly confined to Northern cuisines such as Punjabi, Rajasthani and Mughlai. Tandoors are an import from the Middle East and Central Asia; the technology likely arrived during the 16th-century Mughal conquest of Northern India, and you’ll find similar ovens in Afghanistan all the way to the Caucuses.
As tandoor masters skewer marinated meat and lower it into the center of the oven, they also form pillows of naan dough and slap them onto the tandoor’s inner walls to cook. The combination of direct and indirect heat, which can hit 850 degrees, bakes the naan in a matter of minutes, blistering it in spots as pockets of gas bubble up like Neapolitan pizza. The result is a crisp yet tender bread, great for grabbing some barbecue.
Naan is usually made from maida — a refined, low-protein Indian wheat flour most comparable to American cake flour — and mixed with milk or yogurt as well as water for a richer flavor. It comes plain or flavored with the likes of garlic, ghee or mint, and is also ripe for stuffing like paratha. The latter are called kulchas, a Punjabi speciality, and common fillings include paneer, potatoes, onions or meat.
This fried flatbread usually doesn’t contain yeast or chemical leavening. As it sizzles in hot oil, it puffs up into beach balls before collapsing on the plate. (That said, some skilled puri cooks are able to keep their puri puffy and hollow even after cooking, and take the opportunity to fill the hollow shells with all manner of curries.)
Like roti, puri is served as a handy utensil for saucy dishes like chana masala, but the fry job gives them a paratha-like richness. It’s made with a range of flours, including maida and atta, and goes well with savory dishes as well as sweet ones, such as rice pudding.
One famous cousin bread is bhatura — which, unlike puri, is usually leavened with yeast or baking powder. It forms half of the Punjabi dish chole bhature, served with a side of spicy chickpea curry usually made without tomatoes, unlike chana masala. You can get an excellent version at Jassi Sweets & Cafe in Iselin, New Jersey, home to one of America’s densest Indian communities.
The Portuguese colonial influence still exists on the southwestern state of Goa, including the local taste for puffy sandwich buns similar to Portugal’s crackly papo seco rolls. It also stretches north to the neighboring state of Maharashtra, where you’ll find soft Goan pav (or pao), sandwiches stuffed with potato fritters and sauced with mint and tamarind chutney.
You’ll find these vada pav — indigenous Indian veggie burgers — all over Mumbai, where they’re quintessential street snacks. The dish even provided the inspiration for the McAloo Tikki, McDonald’s entry into the Indian veggie burger market.
Bombay sandwich bread
Mumbaikars are big on sandwiches. The coastal city of 21.3 million people, formerly called Bombay, has a rich tradition of elaborately constructed club sandwiches made with European-style white bread. Instead of meat, though, the city’s vegetarian population opts for thinly sliced and boiled potatoes and raw vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, chiles and onions. Finely grated cheese might join the party, and a spicy mint-chile chutney usually does too.
The bread, made with refined wheat flour and full of simple carbohydrates, toasts beautifully on a panini press. The resulting sandwich is a riot of color, texture and flavor. For the full experience, head to a restaurant specializing in Mumbai street food — like Dimple’s Bombay Talk, which has three locations across New Jersey — for a vegetarian Bombay sandwich.
Many Indian breads are naturally gluten free, including appam, a popular pancake in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu that’s also taken root in Sri Lanka, where it’s called a hopper. Appam is made with a batter of rice flour and coconut milk, fermented for a delicate twangy flavor and extra elasticity. It’s then cooked in a concave pan that gives the resulting pancakes a bowl-like shape — crisp and lacy at the edges, thicker in the center — which becomes a handy container for accompanying curries, egg dishes or yogurt soups.
There are dozens of variations on the hopper theme, but Sri Lankan egg hoppers are one of the tastiest: appam with a runny egg steamed in the middle, served for breakfast with a bracing chile-spiked coconut chutney.
Popular across India but especially the South, idli is another rice bread made to sop up sauces. Ground lentils are thrown in the fermented, steamed batter; the soft, lean, spongy bread is cooked in specially designed molds and looks like lentil-shaped stress balls when fully cooked.
With a delicately earthy lentil flavor and fermented kick, the absorbent bread is ideal for breakfast with sambar, a spiced vegetable soup flavored with toasted lentils. Saravana Bhavan, a global Indian chain with locations in the U.S. and Canada, serves idli a few different ways, including a deep-fried variation accompanied by cooling raita.
Essentially savory Indian doughnuts, vadas can be made from soaked lentils or a dozen other legumes, such as chickpeas and mung beans. The batter is often seasoned with onion, cumin, curry leaves or ginger, then shaped into small, almost holeless donettes and fried until golden and crisp. Vadas soften quickly — especially when dunked in sambar or yogurt like idli — and are often eaten for breakfast or a midday snack.
Probably the most recognizable Indian bread in America after naan, dosa is a South Indian specialty of fermented rice and lentil flour batter, cooked into a vanishingly thin crepe on a griddle glistening with oil or ghee. Rolled into outsized tubes, dosa is a common lunch or street snack in the region.
A masala dosa adds a filling of spiced potatoes, and there are countless variations: a Pondicherry-style dosa that adds crunchy fried bits; rava dosa made with semolina instead of lentils; versions filled with potato fritters or grated paneer. No matter the filling, dosa is almost always served with sambar and coconut chutney for dunking.
At South Indian dosa specialists like Saravana Bhavan, you’ll usually see uttapam, a pale pancake made with a batter similar to that of appam, plus lentils. The thick batter cooks like a crumpet on the griddle, forming nooks and crannies as gases expand and pop in the pancake. Instead of getting rolled and filled with other ingredients, uttapam is topped with them right on the stove. Tomatoes, chiles, caramelized onions and beets are all common toppings that give the puffy cake some added dimension.
If you’re in Rajasthan or Andhra Pradesh, you might see this dosa variant, a green-tinted pancake made with soaked mung beans instead of black lentils. Pesarattu boasts a more vegetal flavor than other dosa and lacks those breads’ fermented flavor. Instead, its wholesome taste is perfect with tamarind chutney and green chile. Though it lacks other dosas’ lacquer-like crust, pesarattu’s edges are deliciously crisp, like the best diner pancakes.