Have I mentioned that I adore Indian food, over and above any other?
Racially, I may be the rebellious heir to Philippine cooking, and an indifferent heir to the cooking of the American midwest…I may be a trepid émigré to the heavy meat-and-dairy foods of Australia, an enthusiastic admirer of Thai, Vietnamese, and Malay street foods, and a happy participant in Mexican and Italian dishes…
But the Indian kitchen is my spiritual home (even though I am not in the least bit Indian) and Indian cooking is my soul food. I love everything—everything!—that issues from the kitchens of this 5,000-year-old cuisine…from Kashmir in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, and all the marvelous flavours and textures in-between.
I’ve tried to teach myself to cook some of my favorite things, over the years, though I must confess that the subtleties of flavour and some of the traditional ingredients of the cuisine are lost on an outsider like me. But then I am not cooking to please an Indian husband (who would, no doubt, compare my skills to those of his mother), Indian mother or Indian mother-in-law, thank goodness! Kris doesn’t mind Indian food, but his favorite is Thai, and so, really, I cook for myself. I cook for myself because I delight in all aspects of Indian cooking, from shopping for the spices to the time and labour intensive processes of kneading doughs, grinding spices, grating and milking coconuts, sieving, churning, stirring bubbling chutneys for hours on end…as much as in the finished food.
That said, I don’t dare claim any of my own recipes as authentically Indian or correct!
I improvise a lot. I experiment. I substitute things to bring the Glycemic Index of a recipe down. I probably create a lot of unholy marriages between ingredients that Ayurvedic practitioners would shudder to read of. But the stuff I make is yummy (well, I think so, anyway), it brings me joy to make it and eat it, and—almost too good to be true—most of them have the Low GI rating that, so far, has kept my blood sugar within ‘normal person’ levels for two years straight.
Parathas (also parantha or parauntha) from my lovely new co-worker Sabi. She and her family are Sikhs from Punjab, and are strictly vegetarian. There were no pictures of the day I visited Sabi at her home…I didn’t want to freak my new friend out by pulling a camera out and styling the food. She’s a very shy and simple woman, a devoted wife and mother, has been just a few years in Australia.
Parathas are a fabulous, flaky Indian flatbread cooked on a hot griddle. The flakiness is caused by trapping oil and/or oily pastes between layers of dough (so parathas are slightly less healthy than plain roti or chapattis, which are pretty much flour, dough, water, and a scant tablespoon of oil) but they are so delicious that they are worth the extra oil content! I use canola oil, for what it’s worth.
- 2 cups of atta flour
- 1/2 cup of besan
- 1/4 cup of rolled oats, only because I was experimenting the day I took the pictures…better just leave them out!
- 1 tsp each of coriander seeds, nigella seeds, coarse-ground chilli powder. I also threw in Maldives fish sambol (because I am addicted to the stuff), and chaat masala (ditto)
- 1/2 inch piece of ginger (not pictured) finely grated
- a handful of chopped coriander leaves (not pictured)
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- about 1 cup of warm water
- extra atta flour for rolling
- extra canola oil for cooking
In a mixing bowl, combine the flours and all the spices, herbs, seasonings in the picture above. Don’t forget the ginger and coriander, which I forgot to include in the photograph. Add warm water, a little at a time, and when the mix starts to look like a bowl of broken-up cauliflower lumps, drop the spatula and use your hands to knead the lumps together. Just because the mix looks dry doesn’t mean it is…kneading by hand will tell you, by feel, when the dough is of the right consistency (soft, but not sticky) Never dump all the water in at one time…I find that I never use up all of the water, and still my doughs so far have been too sticky to knead and roll with ease. So this tip comes from my experience of not following this tip!
Once everything has come together, take the dough out of its bowl and knead by hand for a few minutes. Form into a ball, cover, and let rest for “at least 10 minutes”, as the various recipes say, though I find that leaving the dough for an hour, or even overnight in the fridge, makes it more elastic and less sticky.
While the dough is resting, make the besan and dhal paste.
Besan and dhal paste
- 1 cup of cooked dhal…I used chana dhal, washed and soaked for a few hours in water, then boiled—with salt, a teaspoon of turmeric, and a piece of cinnamon bark—until cooked but not mushy). Drain well and let cool.
- 1/3 cup of besan
- 1 tsp ajwain or carom seeds
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup canola oil
Note: To make a very simple paratha, use just canola oil instead of the besan-and-dhal paste to create the layers. The process remains the same.
Into a food processor or blender throw together the cooked dhal, besan, spices, and salt. Pulse to a mush, adding oil until the paste is smooth and, theoretically, spreadable…though I keep mine fairly stiff, and it doesn’t spread easily at all. The the good thing about this is that I can use more of the paste than just a thin smear (I love dhal!) but I get less pasty mess running out of my bread when I roll it out. Whatever suits you, I say.
Set a heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan, or a griddle, or a thawa, onto low-medium heat.
On the griddle, let one side cook only slightly, about 30 or 40 seconds. Holding the griddle by its handle, slide a corner of the bread to the edge, where you can quickly pick the bread up and flip it over onto the other side.
Quickly spread a teaspoon of canola oil over the cooked surface of the bread, letting the other side cook for about 30 seconds.
Note: To cut down on oil and make this step even quicker, I use canola oil in a spray can and spray the surface of the bread. Nice and light!
Flip the bread over again, and oil this surface, as well. Cook for 30 seconds…the surface of the bread should start undulating and moving as hot steam trapped between the dough layers pushes them apart and cooks them from the inside. AWESOME!
Repeat the flipping action until both sides get spots of golden brown on them. Flip onto a plate and serve hot, with a dipping bowl of yoghurt dusted with chaat masala, and maybe some chutney or lemon pickle.
What makes this flatbread such a wonderful option for healthy eating?
Atta flour is made from durum wheat (Triticum durum), the same ‘hard’ wheat used in making pasta, which is another beloved staple of those watching their blood sugar and weight. (You cannot imagine my excitement when I learned that atta and durum are one and the same thing…I used to make my own lasagna and fettuccine noodles from scratch, but gave it up because of the soft wheat flours that were all I could find in the Philippines to use. Even in Australia, durum wheat doesn’t just sit around, available to the public, on supermarket shelves…but every Indian grocery sells atta in 15 kg. sacks! Woot!) Durum also goes by the name bread flour, and winter wheat. It is extremely high in protein, yet lower in gluten (that glutinous web that enables leavened breads to trap air and rise) than the flour made from other wheat varieties.
Besan, or chickpea flour, is also rated as having a low G.I., as are all other varieties of dhal—also known as pulses, lentils, peas or beans. Dhal (derives from the Sanskrit verb “to split”) is typically around 25% protein by weight, giving it a comparable protein content to meats. Dal is also high in Low Glycemic Index carbohydrates, whilst being virtually fat free. Dal is also rich in the B vitamins thiamine and folic acid as well as several minerals, notably iron and zinc.
- Aloo Paratha aka Potato stuffed Indian flat bread – Every Indian’s favorite (zaikazabardast.com)
- Sweet Corn Paratha (cuisineindia.wordpress.com)
- Stuffed Mung Daal Parantha (Indian Bread Stuffed with roasted Mung Beans) (quickasianrecipes.com)