When I married into a Pakistani family a wealth of new experiences opened up to me, but by far the most integral and enduring were those concerned with food. Something about food just gets under your skin. It becomes more than just nourishment when you’re hungry. It’s many things; a comfort, an identity, a skill and a form of communication – a lovingly prepared dish, or a stubborn refusal to eat; both carry a message. It has the ability to gather people together and soften hearts.
In my little multi-cultural family, we eat mostly Pakistani cuisine interspersed with Italian or Moroccan fare and, of course there’s the odd time that we have something oven-ready, like fish and chips, just out of laziness; a “sling-it-and-ding-it” as my friend Jenny calls it. But whenever we’ve gone a few days without a decent salan (a generic name for any South Asian dish) we start to crave some REAL flavours. We just can’t go for very long without the tastes of “home” – not Home the place, Home the feeling.
“Roti” is Urdu for bread. It’s what we call the soft, flat, tortilla-like bread that we use to eat most of our Punjabi dishes. They’re also called chapattis to distinguish them from other types of bread like naan or parathas. They taste and smell heavenly – freshly made, warm and “chopered” (spread with a thin film of butter), they’re healthy – no preservatives, salt or bleaching agents, just a simple mixture of flour and water, AND they’re cheap; a 20kg bag of atta (finely milled wheat-flour) is $10 and lasts us a good couple of months. It’s a staple part of our diet and the kids’ favourite food.
Making roti is an art that most South Asian girls learn from their mothers. First, they help with the cooking; turning the roti over on the hot thava (a large, slightly curved pan) when the colour changes, while their mother rolls out the next one. When the surface starts to bubble, they use a utensil to hold it directly over the flame until it puffs into a phulka, filled with hot air. Once they’ve mastered this technique, they learn to make the atta (dough), not too dry so that it’s stiff nor too wet so that it sticks to the hands like a wheaten adhesive. I learnt the hard way to add the water gradually. Now, like my mother-in–law, I can judge the right amount by eye. The atta is kneaded and left for a few minutes before being shaped into individual little balls, and rolled out into perfectly round roti ready to be placed on the thava. I learnt at my mother-in-law’s side and perfected the skill over time. In the beginning I made a variety of shapes, you never knew what you were going to get – I had an aptitude for producing squares. I also remember my efforts at cooking roti when we had an electric hob instead of gas – they turned out baked, like biscuits – brittle and dry. Eventually, you develop a rhythm, rolling out the next disc while an earlier one gently colours on the thava. As the old adage goes, “practice makes perfect”. My family easily put away 8-9 roti at dinnertime, so I’m in no danger of getting rusty.
The number of girls who can make roti is falling. The availability of frozen, ready-made chapattis offers a quick alternative; no need to get your hands dirty or stand over a hot stove. But like all convenience food, it distances us from the reality of what we eat, relegating it to something pulled from a cupboard instead of wrought from love and expertise. There’s an elemental sense of connection to the wider world when you create a meal from its basic ingredients. Feeling the soft texture and warmth of the dough, pliable and yielding in my hands, inhaling the tantalising aroma of warm bread that permeates the house like an olfactory comfort blanket; these are things I would hate to lose – for us, they’re part of the make-up of family life. Nothing says home like fresh roti!
What food is important to you? Do you live to eat, or eat to live? What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without? Leave a comment below and tantalize our taste-buds!