Learning how to prepare cuisine from different regions is one of the pleasures of living in India. Although my attempts do not taste very authentic I still enjoy experimenting and Sam enjoys eating. I arrive early for family meals, hoping to improve my cooking skills through observation.
Last night we had dinner with Sam’s grandmother, Dadi, who was eager to teach me how to prepare a few items. One of the staples of the Indian diet is rotis, or round flat breads, which are made from wheat flour. Sam’s family often makes rotlas from rice or millet flour for me because I don’t eat wheat. Dadi asked her cook, Mani, to prepare the rotlas in my presence last night.
Conceptually, rotlas are not difficult to make. By slowly adding water to the millet flour you knead the mixture until the dough is soft and pliable. Then you take a small handful of dough and shape it into a ball, again kneading it a little. Finally, with your hands you flatten the ball into a pancake shape and cook it on a very hot pan. When the bread is mostly cooked, remove it from the pan with tongs and hold it over the stovetop flame until it puffs. Done.
In theory this is easy enough, but I just can’t manage to get it right. I watch Mani with complete admiration as she expertly mixes and kneads the flour in the bowl. Her hands move with the assurance only an experienced cook possesses. Her body is relaxed, face smiling as she explains what she’s doing. This is a sharp contrast to my own experience: temperature rising, mind filled with self-doubt, hands frantically trying to correct the proportion of water to flour.
Mani’s hands are strong and sure, and she commands the dough with authority. Pushing down with her palm and bending it back with her fingers, the dough obeys her every command. She shapes a ball and begins to flatten it on a round marble slab dusted with flour. Tap, tap, tap, turn. Tap, tap, tap, turn. The rotla takes shape; it’s a perfect circle with even thickness and nice plump edges that stay firm. (Mine often crumble).
Mani’s hands craft one rotla after another, in an inviting rhythm that hints at years of shaping raw ingredients into simple feasts. She wipes her hands on a cloth after placing the last rotla on a plate. Then Mani picks up a knife and a cutting board. She smiles and asks if I’m ready to make the vegetables.