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Knead to know your dough

posted Oct 10, 2011, 11:57 PM by Puneet Goyal   [ updated Oct 12, 2011, 11:41 PM ]
Sarina Lewis
October 11, 2011

Paratha, a form of unleavened flat bread. Photo: Reuters

Sarina Lewis explores the wonderful, diverse world of Indian bread.

LAKSHMI Kanth's hands are poetry in motion. Flick, splat. Flick, splat. Supple fingers twist the dough in a graceful arc, expanding and thinning it with each slapping return to the work surface. Satisfied with its flattened circumference, he picks up a point and gathers it as one would the waistband of a sari, compressing the now-concertinaed circle into a cylindrical tube of dough that is then rolled in on itself to resemble a snail's shell.

The rolling pin flattens it once again, though this time the rounded dough made of white flour, egg, salt, sugar and oil carries the hint of a spiral swirl working outwards from the centre. Two minutes on an oiled hotplate and it's ready for the finishing touch: serviettes in each hand, Kanth crushes the bread like a crumpled flower. The lacha (meaning ''layered'') paratha is presented, golden-brown and fragrant, to taste.

''Pull it,'' Khan urges with a smile, demonstrating how his earlier efforts to create unseen layers allow the paratha to be torn with the delicate pull of two fingers. ''See how soft it is.''

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We are standing in the Hampton East kitchen of Madras Banyan Tree, the restaurant of Madras-born and raised K. J. Suresh. Kanth - his head chef - has spent the past 30 minutes conducting a whirlwind tutorial on the myriad Indian breads forming part of South India's culinary lexicon.

For those unfamiliar with the subcontinent's vast catalogue of wheat, corn, lentil and rice-based breads, such an insight is revelatory. The popularity of naan and roti in Western countries has diverted gastronomic attention from lesser-known breads Indians enjoy.

''In Northern India, wheat is grown throughout the year. South India, the staple is rice,'' Suresh says. It's a concise summary of the difference in breads consumed that leads neatly into Kanth's dosa demonstration. Rice and urud lentils are soaked overnight before being ground to a wet paste. Some masala, sugar and salt are added.

Kanth artfully spreads the dough paper-thin. A little sesame oil is drizzled and then scraped off before the bread is flipped and finished. The crepe-like result is served two ways: folded and plain alongside a katori of lentil broth, or rolled around a spicy potato curry. The south's classic spicy trio of coconut, onion and tomato chutneys are a dosa mainstay.

In South Melbourne, chef Akbar Khan is working the tandoor at Bedi's Indian Restaurant, rolling out the naan dough before slapping it inside the drum-shaped oven.

What was once flamed by charcoal has switched to gas, courtesy of modern health and safety regulations; that trademark flavour is now imparted by the smoke created as marinade from the skewers of tandoori chicken sizzles on purposefully placed fire bricks.

Specialising in North Indian cuisine, Punjabi owner Davinder Bedi is quick to point out that naan is a bread most often eaten in restaurants across India; it is the unleavened paratha and roti that are predominantly eaten at home, courtesy of a cooking method reliant on the tava - a flat hotplate found on every domestic stove's top.

Alongside puris (see breakout), these are the breads most commonly consumed in India's north. With all three made from wholemeal flour, salt, oil and water (and in the case of paratha, butter), the difference is found in the ratios that impact on the firmness of the dough.

''The roti's consistency is harder than the naan, and harder than the roti is the puri,'' Bedi says as Khan works at shortcrust samosa dough made from white flour, butter, water, salt and thymol seeds, said to aid digestion of the fried pastry.

The evolution of naan

Dosa Crepe-like bread made from crushed lentils and rice cooked on a hotplate.

Idli A breakfast favourite made from fermented rice flour. Shaped like a tennis ball-sized UFO, it is steamed then served with vegetable or lentil broth.

Idiyappam Rice-flour dough pushed through a presser or sieve to make noodle-like strands. Steamed as a light breakfast served with coconut milk.

Vada Doughnut-like fried breads made from lentils, ginger, chilli and salt, served with curd or lentil soup.

Naan Predominantly served in restaurants and made in a tandoor, the dough comprises white flour, salt, oil, egg, yoghurt and baking powder.

Paratha Unleavened flat bread cooked on a tava (flat griddle) made from wholemeal flour, salt and water layered with butter. A complete meal when stuffed with vegetables or meat.

Roti Unleavened wholemeal flatbread cooked in the tandoor or tava.

Puri A hard dough made from wholemeal flour, salt, oil and a little water that puffs up when fried. A light meal served with vegetable subzi (curry).

Bati Hard, tennis ball-shaped Rajasthani baked bread made with flour, oil and minimal water and often stuffed with lentils. Long shelf life for a desert climate.

Makki Punjabi specialty bread made from cornbread and cooked on a tava. Traditionally accompanied by cooked mustard green leaves, butter and buttermilk.