When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me how he missed those thick, piping-hot, fresh off the choolah (clay oven) millet roti (flatbread) that my grandma used to make every day. All the kids and my grandpa would sit in a row with their plates and she would carefully roast each roti, smother it with ghee and serve it with hot lentil soup and a side of salad. I have similar memories of hot, soft rotis from my childhood and I’m sure many others who grew up in an Indian family do, too.
Bread is an integral part of Indian cuisine. In most Indian households, bread is a part of most meals every day. Typically made from whole wheat flour, it contains complex carbohydrates, has a good amount of dietary fiber and is a wholesome component of any nutritious meal. Flatbreads are the most common form of bread in India but the flour and method of making various flatbreads differs greatly from region to region.
India is a country with so many languages, cultures, beliefs and cuisines that it’s almost like a large country with many smaller nations inside of it. Each region grows its own crop, so what the local people eat greatly depends on what’s grown there. That’s what makes every region and its cuisine different from the next. Indian breads are made from wheat, rice, corn or lentils. The cooking method also varies from region to region. Across India, some people make dough and cook the bread on the griddle, some make pancake-like bread with a fermented batter, some bake the bread in the oven and some fry it in oil. These breads are named differently, shaped differently and even stored differently. Even the dishes they’re paired with vary. But no matter what region we’re talking about, if there’s Indian food being served, it will be served with some kind of bread.
In south India, the staple breads are made mostly of rice and lentils and they’re more like a crepe or pancake, so for that reason I haven’t included them in this list. Most breads in India are typically made of a wheat flour-based dough. Based on the method of cooking, Indian bread can be divided into three main categories: ones that are roasted on a griddle, one that is baked in tandoor (another type of clay oven) and ones that are deep fried. These five basic Indian breads are popular all around the world.
1. Roti or Phulkas: Thin flatbread that is an integral part of everyday meals in every North Indian kitchen.
2. Paratha: Pan-fried Indian flatbreads, paratha is crispy, layered and pairs very well with curries.
3. Poori: Deep-fried bread cooked to puffed-up, golden brown perfection. Poori is generally served during festive occasions.
4. Stuffed paratha: Another popular way to enjoy parathas in Indian homes is by stuffing them with some kind of spiced filling. Common fillings include potatoes, cauliflower or even cottage cheese (paneer).
5. Naan: One of the most popular Indian breads all around the world, naan is actually not very common in everyday Indian homes. It’s typically served in restaurants and on special occasions. Naan is baked in a clay oven and the char from the coal gives it its distinct flavor.
There is a wide world of Indian breads apart from these five favorites. Some of the lesser-known breads, which haven’t yet become popular all over the world but are very common in Indian households include khakra, rumali, bhatia, phefra, do-patri, missi roti and appam. So if you see these Indian breads on a menu, try them!
Editor’s Note: Which Indian breads have you tried? What’s your favorite? Chime in below!
Prerna is a food photographer and the blogger behind Indian Simmer. She spent most of her childhood in a few small towns in central India, a time she fondly remembers for rotis straight off the clay oven and her mom’s cooking with produce plucked right from the farms. She earned her MBA in India and worked in the advertising industry for a few years. Then she met a guy, married him, and moved to the US. When Prerna’s not running after her daughter, you’ll find her cooking in the tiny kitchen of her small apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Three things made me this awesome cook that I am today,” she says, sarcastically, “circumstances, no help and hunger! Whatever I do in the kitchen today is because of the two moms in my life: my mom and my husband’s mom.” Prerna loves traveling and exploring new cuisines, then testing them in her kitchen before sharing them with the world. These days she’s having fun combining two of her biggest passions—food and photography—on Indian Simmer. Check out Indian Simmer on Facebook!