The smell that floods a home when the first chapatti goes on the cast-iron hotplate surrounds me with comfort and joy I cannot even explain. It’s my most favourite smell in the whole world because it represents my childhood, my family and every moment (both happy and sad) in our home.Gujarati chapattis (rotli) are the glue that sticks everything Indian families eat together… or should I say the bread the scoops up all of our daals and curries. They’re an everyday staple and without them, a weeknight meal would be incomplete. I’ve known men who won’t touch their dinner unless there are hot, freshly-made rotlis on the table.
Softer and smaller than your average Punjabi or Pakistani Roti (the kind you’d get in most restaurants), these Gujarati Rotli have oil in the dough and are cooked on a super-hot cast-iron tawa/lodhi, leaving them delicious and toasty. I don’t cook them on an open flame because they’re so soft, they’d just break. They still puff up like hot air balloons as they cook on the lodhi.
They are something I was utterly fascinated by as a child. The first thing I ever ‘cooked’ were raggedy, uneven rotlis using my mini rotli-making set my masi bought me when I was five. I’d peer over our cooker wide-eyed at the hot air balloon show my mum told me was happening. The suspense that built up as they rose from flatbreads to footballs was inexplicably exciting for a little girl obsessed with eating.
I would roll out the same piece of dough over and over again and by the end of it, my poor dad would have to eat the splat-shaped biscuit thing I had presented him with such pride. He’d tell me it was delicious that and I was getting better and better.
There’s a certain routine to making rotli you wouldn’t dare mess with. Ask any Gujarati cook; once their rotli routine is set in its ways, you’d be a fool to question it. Everything from the patlo (board), to the velan (thin Indian rolling pin) and the tavitho (steel utensil used to flip the rotli), to the number of times the rotli is actually flipped, a Gujarati’s rotli routine is sacred.
Gujaratis talk for hours about how making rotli at someone else’s house is literally the worst. “They never rise, the thickness of the velan is all wrong and the lodhi never gets hot enough”, etc, etc, etc. Of course, when it’s you having to explain your flat-as-a-pancake rotlis, all these excuses are valid.
Everyone has their preferences on whether or not they add butter. I do because life is better with butter. One of my favourite ways of eating rotli is straight off the lodhi, slathered with garlic butter and rolled into a cigar. This is what my Nanabapu would do for my mum when she was little and something she then did for our family too.
Yes, Garlic and Coriander is great, Jalebi Paratha are delicious and Masala Poori are an amazing treat but rotli are the staple food we were reared on. They’re quite literally the bread and butter of Gujarati cuisine. Try them.
500g chapatti flour, plus more for rolling
80ml sunflower oil
300ml boiling water, or enough to make a soft dough
1. Add the flour to a large bowl and make a well in the middle.
2. Pour the oil into the well and top up with the boiling water.
3. Use a spoon to mix the dough until it’s cool enough to handle. Use your hands to bring the dough together. Knead for 5 minutes until smooth and soft.
4. Make small ping pong ball-sized pieces with the dough. Keep some flour on a plate for rolling.
6. Place the cast iron hot plate or a frying pan on a medium heat. Leave it for 5 minutes.
7. Get your rolling board and rolling pin ready. Keep a wet sponge under the board so it doesn’t move.
8. To start rolling, take a piece of dough and roll it between your palms, flattening it slightly. Dip each side in flour.
9. Roll it once up and down with the rolling pin and then take a pinch of flour. Place it in the middle of the dough and then use your index fingers and thumb to pinch it closed, starting from the outer edges. This step isn’t something everyone traditionally does but is what my mum taught me for soft rotli that rise.
10. Next, flatten the dough using your palm and again, dip each side in flour. Now, begin rolling the dough in a circular motion, teasing the dough to move around with your rolling. If you can’t do this, pick the rotli up with one hand and move it around yourself. The aim is to create a perfectly round, even surface and a flatbread that’s around 2mm in thickness and 6-7-inches in diameter.
12. Cook it on the second side until small, even brown spots appear all over the bottom of the rotli – around 30 seconds. Flip it.
13. Now, this is the rising side. Don’t worry if your rotlis don’t rise the first few times you try it. It comes with practice. They’ll still taste delicious. Cook until darker, less evenly-spread patches appear on the bottom. Around 15-20 seconds. Flip it and place it this side up on your kitchen paper-lined plate. Butter it.
14. Repeat this process for all of your rotli until you have a beautiful, buttery stack.
It’s not imperative they rise – they will still taste great! Most importantly, keep practising. It’s so worth it.