There aren’t many things that are quite so awesome as bread that is still warm from cooking. Moist and airy, it is filled with fragrance and flavor. And whatever you put on it (a bit of cheese, a blob of peanut butter or some creamy butter) quickly gets melty and gooey.
I love warm bread so much so that I try to avoid making more than I can eat before it cools. And since most days I’m just cooking for two, I don’t make loaves of bread very often. I like to cook bread in smaller batches, and I have a few different methods of doing so. One of them is the chapati, a pita-like flatbread; but unlike yeasted pita, a chapati is unleavened, which allows for a much simpler, more flexible preparation.
Mix some flour and water, flatten out the dough, and cook on a hot griddle or cast-iron skillet until done. Really, that’s all there is to it!
You can find a lot of chapati recipes online, but many of them make the preparation more complicated than it has to be. This really is an instant bread, which can be warm from the skillet five minutes after you decide to make it. There’s a catch, though: you have to get the right kind of flour.
A lot of recipes say you can make chapatis with whole wheat or other flours, or with some combination of them. The first several batches of chapatis I made were with the flour that was already in my pantry, but even with a lot of coaxing, they didn’t rise up very well and turned out heavy, dark and maybe even a little bitter. You’ll get a far superior result in much less time if you go to an Indian or Asian market and pick up some durum atta flour (in Chattanooga, you can get some at specialty groceries such as the India Bazar on Lee Highway).
Atta flour is made of hard wheat, milled to a fine texture. It has a high gluten content, so it can make a very strong and elastic dough. With it, chapatis are a very easy prep and can be made in small batches so that they’re always served fresh and hot. At the table, chapatis can be torn in pieces to scoop up meats and vegetables; rolled to sop up sauces, soups and melted cheese; used as a wrap for meats, veggies, sauces and fillings; or simply topped with some butter or ghee.
There are only two required ingredients, so measuring is not necessary. Just put some atta flour into a bowl. Use as much as you think will yield the amount of bread you want (very roughly, figure on about a quarter-cup per serving). You can also add some salt or oil at this point, but they’re entirely optional (I don’t bother). Then, slowly mix in some water until you have a soft, fairly wet dough.
At this point, you could just heat up a skillet or griddle and cook the chapati, and I often do cook the dough right away (I’m not always the best planner). If the dough hasn’t had time to rest, it won’t be as elastic, so you might get a thicker result-but it will still be delicious. If you’re mixing it ahead of time and want to fully develop the dough, knead it until it is soft and smooth, then let it sit for a half-hour or more (or put it in a covered dish and stick it in the refrigerator overnight).
To cook, preheat a griddle or skillet over medium-high heat until hot (and a drop of water dances on the surface). There is no need to grease the griddle or skillet. Pull off a golf ball-sized piece of dough, and flatten it into a circle, either by pressing or rolling. If I’m rushing along with freshly made dough, I might just drop it straight onto the skillet and flatten it as it begins to cook with fingers that I’ve run under some water so that the dough won’t stick. But if the dough has had a chance to rest, I might spread some flour out on the counter and roll it thin with a rolling pin. Then, I use a scraper to get it off the counter and carefully lift it onto the hot skillet.
Cook for about 30 seconds on each side, then flip it again and cook until it has the texture that you want. If you use a spatula to push down on the edges of a thin chapati at this point, pockets of steam will form bubbles in the dough, making it light and airy.
And that’s it! Sometimes, I just make one big chapati, or if I’m feeding more than two people, I’ll make a batch of them-but never until the last minute so they don’t have time to cool before we eat. They come out with a light, nutty flavor and lovely, chewy texture.
As always, feel free to add your own special flourish with flavors, seasonings, toppings or fillings, added either before or after cooking. Experiment with adding oils, melted fat, soy sauce, coconut milk, yogurt, chutneys, nuts, chiles, grated veggies, spices or herbs. In some Jewish kitchens, coconut milk and sugar are added to chapatis to make them special for the Sabbath. Mark Bittman makes turnovers with chapatis by folding the dough with some caramelized onions tucked inside, then baking them in the oven instead of cooking them on the stovetop. Charmaine Solomon stuffs them with lentils and spinach.
Just imagine all the delicious things you can make, starting with just a bit of atta flour and water!
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.