From being used as a utilitarian bowl that helped ancient travelers scoop curry to acting as symbol of revolt against colonial rule, the diversity of bread in India is a testimony to its layered culinary legacy. The country’s rich bread traditions can be attributed to both a long history of trade and invasion and its geographical vastness, which ultimately influences the choice of grains and cooking techniques.
Some generalizations can be made, but it’s hard to pin down an all-encompassing Indian bread. There are some connections that can be made—it is, for example, safe to say that most flatbreads from northern India are unleavened and made from milled flour. These humble breads—usually eaten with lentils, dry vegetable sabzis, and meat salads—are the unsung everyday heroes of most households. In southern India and the West Coast, rice and peeled and split black lentils are usually the starter base for breads.
Flatbreads, including roti, are believed to be one of the oldest types of bread and before Muslim settlers introduced refined flour in the 12th century, they were made with whole grains. Even after the introduction of refined flour, the South Indian rice belt stayed true to its mainstay crop with breads made from rice and lentil-based batters.
Preparation techniques also involve varying degrees of skill. Perfecting a rice-based dosa requires the perfect sizzle of a flat tawa (griddle) greased with just the right slick of ghee, followed by a circular swirling motion with a ladle. The fermented rice and coconut milk-based appam batter—favored in Kerala and Tamil Nadu—has its own distinguished heavy metal-based appa chatti, which when used correctly helps attain crisp, lacy brown edges and a pillowy center.
While much has been said and written about mainstream players such as naan—which have come to be almost synonymous with Indian bread—is a whole landscape of lesser-known and equally well-loved fixtures that are the dietary pillars of various Indian states and their melting pot of communities. Here’s a peek at some stalwarts that haven’t quite achieved rockstar stature, but deserve just as much reverence, taking families from breakfast to dinner—and lots of meals in between—with little fuss and fanfare.
Mangalore Buns, Mangalore
Nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range, the idyllic south Indian port city of Mangalore is known for its swaying coconut palms, pristine beaches, seafood... and buns. Popular at breakfast and teatime, these puffy deep-fried treats are referred to as buns because their spongy texture is reminiscent of bread. Slightly over-ripe bananas are mixed with flour, yogurt or sour buttermilk, and ghee, then rested overnight to form a soft fermented dough. A sprinkling of cumin seeds lends some relief from a potentially cloying sweetness. The rested dough is then divided and rolled on a flat surface into circular discs, which are subsequently deep fried. A spicy coconut chutney and sambhar (lentil stew) act as unlikely accompaniments, but these buns are good enough to be savored plain.
For most Goans, no wake up call is as effective as the tempting smell that wafts around streets courtesy the local poder. This rich breadmaking legacy inherited from the Portuguese has resulted in chart-topping bread, famed for its pillow-soft spring and fine crumb. Typically square-shaped and featuring a golden crust, the pão is one of the finest culinary remnants left behind by Portuguese missionaries. Over time, indigenous tweaks such as using palm wine as a leavening agent instead of yeast have lent the pão its characteristic Goan flavor.
Pesarattu, Andhra Pradesh
One would be forgiven for drawing the obvious physical parallels between this bread and the crepe. The major point of distinction between pesarattu and its distant cousin the dosa (widely eaten across South India) is that it is made with a green gram lentil batter unlike the former, which uses black gram. The secret to nailing the pesarattu batter is allowing the green gram to soak overnight. The lentils are then ground into a smooth paste with green chillies, ginger, and salt. The batter is poured onto a tawa griddle in the same manner as a dosa and served with a ginger or tamarind chutney.
The flaky Malabar porotta may well be what put Kerala on the regional food map, but the rice flour-based pathiri—which bears a loose resemblance to a pancake—deserves time in the spotlight as well. Rice flour is mixed with warm water to form a dough, then fashioned into thin flat discs, which are cooked on a tawa. Sometimes pathiris are dipped in a coconut milk bath to add extra moistness and go on to be enjoyed with coconut-rich mutton and chicken “ishtew” curries. Variations of pathiri include the fried neypathiri (made with ghee), meen pathiri with a bursting-to-the-seams fish filling, and irachi pathiri that's stuffed with beef.
Puran Poli, Maharashtra
All stops are pulled out during festivals in India and the making of puran poli is a special indulgence reserved for Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi (devoted to the Hindu god Ganesh). The sweet filling is made from peeled split Bengal gram and jaggery, which results in a decadent nuttiness. The dough for this flatbread is usually made with a half-and-half mix of all purpose and wheat flours. A dollop of ghee is added initially while kneading the dough to make the poli or bread crispy and once again while cooking over a tawa just as a smattering of brown spots appear.
Sheermal, Hyderabad and Lucknow
This saffron-flavored flatbread is believed to have been introduced to north India by the Mughal emperors. The completely unexpected sweet quotient comes from a saffron and cardamom-perfumed warm milk used for its dough. The bread is leavened with yeast and baked in a tandoor. The slight sweetness offsets Lucknowi kebabs and slow-cooked lamb shank nihari perfectly.
Khoba Roti, Rajasthan
The ultimate throwback to the purpose ancient travellers had in mind, the thick khoba roti with its indentations or cavities—makes for an ideal “plate” for dried vegetable accompaniments, pickles, and chutneys. Historically, the vegetables were lined up alongside the hollows and taken by villagers on their business travels. Wheat flour, salt and copious amounts of ghee are added to the dough and the roti can be given either the tawa treatment or cooked in a gas tandoor.
Eating breakfast like a king takes on a different dimension in West Bengal where the deep-fried, yeast-free flatbread luchi takes its proud place at the morning table. A few drops of oil are added to golf ball-sized balls before being rolled out to a perfect consistency that’s not too thick or thin. The temperature of the oil in which these breads are finished off is important, too It should be hot, but not smoky. The ultimate litmus test is when these puff up to perfection.
If you can trust the Gujaratis with one thing, it’s to face life head-on braced with an arsenal of dried savory snacks and breads. This soft flatbread is able to transition effortlessly from breakfast to lunch, teatime and several meals in between. Thepla is usually made with a combination of wheat, chickpea, and millet flours. Fenugreek leaves have become synonymous with theplas, but are definitely an acquired taste. Interestingly, the cooking process is slightly different when making theplas for travel. Milk is used instead of water in the dough in order to make it stiff and stretch its shelf life. Theplas are usually served with the holy trinity of yogurt, sweet mango pickle, and a slightly pungent red garlic chutney.